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Category:    Home > Reviews > Gangster > Drama > Documentary > American Gangster (2007; HD-DVD/DVD Combo Format) + The American Gangster (Sony DVD Documentary)

American Gangster (2007; HD-DVD/DVD Combo Format) + The American Gangster (Sony DVD Documentary)


Picture: B/C+/C+     Sound: B/B-/C+     Extras: B-/D     Film: B/B+     Documentary: B-



After much shuffling around, Universal finally saw American Gangster go into production and the result is one of 2007’s best films.  With Ridley Scott directing, Denzel Washington would finally play real-life, upscale crime boss Frank Lucas and his opponent in the police department would be matched by Russell Crowe as the honest cop trying to bring him down when he finally figures out that racism and ignorance is at least half the reason he is getting away with drug trafficking and much more.


At the time, the mostly white male authorities on all local, state and federal levels could not imagine (for their own lame reasons) that any black man could be a kingpin of anything, but Lucas was and that is how he built his empire.  Besides not being the most popular cop around, Richie Roberts (Crowe) is the first and only person to realize what is happening and the way he slowly discovers that Lucas is the brains among several gangster outfits is a story in itself that unspools with the right kind of tension and suspense throughout.


Though not the hands-on confrontation we saw between Mickey Rourke and John Lone in Michael Cimino’s highly underrated and imitated Year Of The Dragon (1985, reviewed elsewhere on this site) with its intensities and surprises, you once again have a story where the good cop is fighting an uphill battle alone and cheers to Scott and the writer Steve Zaillian for pulling off the tale by sticking to the real life case and not falling back on any formula.


Though long at 157 minutes as released in theaters, the longer 176 minutes version is far better, with more development of the story and detail of the tale as intended.  Both work well, but the longer version is not just a few extra scenes from the cutting room floor slapped on, but proof of how ambitious this film is and how most of that ambition was realized.  Now you can see for yourself.


Cheers also to Ruby Dee’s Oscar-nominated performance as Lucas’ mother ands great turns by a solid cast of actors including Josh Brolin (having an amazing 2007) as a corrupt cop, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Frank’s brother, Ted Levine, Carla Gugino, Armand Assante, Joe Morton, Kevin Corrigan, John Polito, Clarence Williams III and Cuba Gooding, Jr. giving the first real acting performance of any substance in years.  Hope we don’t have to wait too long for him to try something like this again.


The 1080p 1.85 X 1 VC-1 digital High Definition image is a bit of a disappointment, even in its shorter version being too long to be stuck on the HD side of a Combo HD-DVD without loss of picture quality versus how great this looked on film in 35mm.  Despite some remarkable work by Director of Photography Harris Savides, A.S.C. (of The Yards, The Game and Zodiac) that is among his most impressive, depth and detail may be above low def DVD, but does not deliver as an HD format should.  This is why the longer version is only on the standard DVD side, but actually looks poorer and especially in the Video Black and color range department.  The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix on the HD side is better than the DVD’s standard Dolby 5.1, but the lack of Dolby TrueHD and/or DTS MA on the HD side is noticeable, especially since Scott’s films tend to have some of the best sound mixes of any living director today.  Oh, and the underrated Marc Streitenfeld delivers one of the year’s most underrated scores.


Extras on both sides include the original theatrical trailer and besides the longer version already noted, the HD side has HDi interactivity, an alternate opening, deleted scenes and audio commentary by Scott and writer Steve Zaillian.


The Ben Burtt-produced documentary The American Gangster, as narrated by Dennis Farina, is a pretty good crash course on the oldest mobsters that came to public attention in the 1920s and 1930s.  Though it has little to do with Scott’s film and is obviously sold separately, it is a fine 48 minutes crash course in real life crime and both the 1.33 X 1 image and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo are just fine for playback.



Some critics outside of the film world targeted Scott’s film for political reasons, saying that Frank Black was being to glorified by this film and portrayed with too much dignity.  How dare the makers show him as classy when he was a “low life” or “scum bag” or “very bad man” and/or the like?  This came from a small but vocal chorus of African American culture critics who seemed uncomfortable about a great actor like Washington turning him into a role model he should never be.  However, they missed the point.


Washington had already played a bad gangster-type on the level of Lucas, but without the empire, family or power on that level.  If anything, most mob types when played by Black Males have fit how these critics wanted to see Lucas played instead of what was delivered here.  The point is, this is the first film in Hollywood history that portrays a powerful Black gangster as smart and dignified and not just a crime figure that would easily fit into the kitsch of Hip Hop’s view that goes back to 1970s cinema and works its way to Brian De Palma’s 1983 Scarface remake.


Lucas is not an immigrant gone bad or someone trapped by his circumstances just exploiting others on a street level.  If anything, the real life Lucas would be more like he is here and not in what is a modern stereotype of a Black gangster, or he would not have been as rich and successful as he was.  That is why, after so many Gangster genre films (especially since 1990) and the hit phenomenon that was The Sopranos, Scott’s American Gangster is a remarkable film in that it moves on to the next major chapter in telling the crime stories the genre has been telling since sound on film arrived.


Especially in its long version, it is a grade-A winner whose value will only become more obvious in the next few years and beyond.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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