Somewhere in the middle of one of the many flat, dour, rhythmless, unmusical scenes in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, I had the following revelation: This is intentional. I realized that Scott is a technically proficient enough filmmaker that this plodding and visually bland approach to his material reflects not some kind of aesthetic miscalculation, but his actual taste. This is good filmmaking to him. All his recent movies – including Gladiator – exhibit the same staid literalness.
The material in American Gangster is so boffo that Scott can’t quite kill it. Likewise, his two great leads – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe – survive his smothering attentions. You sure wonder, though, what a different filmmaker would have done with the same material. Michael Mann, who shares Scott’s maddening indifference to pacing and rhythm, could have at least infused the movie with some of his infectious grandiosity. And Mann would have given it the proper historical sweep, instead of Scott’s weirdly atemporal approach. (The normal mode would be to convey the passage of time through changes in the main character – think of the great temporal sense of Goodfellas – but that would go against Scott’s apparent goal of turning Denzel Washington into a robot.) This sounds like a godawful cliché, but I’d have loved to see American Gangster as directed by Spike Lee. Scott is helplessly suspended between celebration of Washington’s gangster Frank Lucas and lamentation of all the damage his high-grade heroin does to Harlem. He can’t do either with any conviction without undermining the other. The most he can do is try to bridge them with some hints that it’s all capitalism’s fault. Lee, however, is – as the postmodern professors like to say – at home with ambiguity. He’s a seducer and a moralist. He doesn’t have to apologize to one as he does the other. He does them both with a sort of furious relish. Scott doesn’t do anything with either fury or relish.