Text Reviews Theatrical Review

Theatrical Review: American Gangster

American Gangster is based on a true story. In 1968, Harlem was essentially “ruled” by gangster Bumpy Johnson and with his death, his right-hand man, Frank Lucas was somewhat left to fend for himself, even though he had some small support from others. Frank figured that the only way to become his own man was to offer something that his competitors couldn’t, which was 100% pure heroin from Bangkok. And so in his own enterprising manner, Frank set out to do that, becoming even a greater source for an influx of heroin into the country than even the Mafia was. Richie Roberts was a New Jersey narcotics detective who was honest on his job to a fault, to a point that it even cost him his wife and son. Roberts was so honest, that after one particular incident, no one wanted to work with him, making him the perfect man to head up an east-coast federal narcotics division with men hand-picked by him to seek out the largest of drug transactions. Which eventually leads him to Frank Lucas…

And that’s a real nutshell compression of the story of American Gangster the latest film from director Ridley Scott and in my opinion anyway, his best film since Black Hawk Down. This almost seems like a different Ridley Scott at work here too. Scott is best known for a his visual stylings, and here he handles the material as matter-of-factly as possible, making a very fast-paced movie that owes much to the film-making style of the 70s, and in particular something like William Friedkin’s The French Connection.

American Gangster weighs in at nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes long, and it never, ever feels that long at all. This film moves like a bullet from the word “go” and there’s nary a moment of wasted film on the screen. This story is just absolutely engrossing and both of these men have such great depth, that you want to see what happens next and Scott handles it in fine fashion.

Scott certainly attracts name and great acting talent, and this movie is no exception. Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts (the first time they’ve been on-screen together since a very fun film from back in the day called Virtuosity) and they’re both terrific here. I was remarking to a friend last night that it seems like Denzel Washington hasn’t aged a day since his time on St. Elsewhere which was now nearly 20 years ago. They’re backed up with lots of other great supporting folks here including Chiwetel Eijifor, Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, Cuba Gooding Jr., Carla Gugino and Ted Levine amongst others. Special note has to go to Josh Brolin who’s really good here as a New York narcotics officer who’s as crooked as they come, he really shines and stands out in the part.

I sort of see this movie as Scorsese-lite, basically seeming that it’s a lot like something Martin Scorsese would make, but backing away a bit from Scorsese’s style, and that’s not meant as a knock to the film at all. I think Ridley Scott, laying off of his visual stylings here is a good thing and the story that he has to work with is so good that it just serves him best to get in and tell that story without any fancy visual bells and whistles. The result is an engrossing film that moves like a bullet from start to finish. I’ve been on a pretty good streak of films lately, and yet again, with American Gangster, I’ve yet another movie that will have to be considered in my Best of 2007 list. This is absolutely a terrific film… don’t miss it.

Text Reviews Theatrical Review

Theatrical Review: Saw IV

Even after his death, and he is clearly dead at the start of the film, the legacy of the Jigsaw killer, John Kramer lives on, with more mysterious murders happening in which the victims are forced through some sort of personal mutilation to save themselves.  This becomes very personal to Rigg, the leader of the SWAT team who’s been in on the Jigsaw case from the very beginning.  Rigg, finds that he must now play Jigsaw’s game himself in order to save he woman he loves, and his way of doing so involves having to see the world the way Jigsaw does.  The mystery of the Jigsaw legacy deepens as two FBI agents become involved in the case, looking to track down whoever they believe Jigsaw’s confederate to be, including Kramer’s former wife…

Saw IV is of course the continuation of the series begun by James Wan and Leigh Whannell with Saw and this movie, like Saw 2 and Saw 3 before it is directed by returning director Darren Lynn Bousman. I, for one, enjoy these movies immensely, yeah, they’re over-the-top extreme horror, but they’re fun puzzle movies as well, all with great twist endings and Saw IV is no exception to that rule.  I actually call this the Godfather 2 of the Saw movies, because this is both a prequel and a sequel in one, telling us the story described above as well as flashing back to the origins of Jigsaw.

I give Bousman, Wan and Whannell huge credit here for turning this series into an absolute horror epic, especially with this fourth movie, which refers to events from all of the past films coming full circle here and even ready to move into new territory by it’s end.  Being a fan of this sort of extreme horror, I’m very much looking forward to the day when I can sit back and watch all four of these in a sitting.

Bousman’s direction is as stylish as it’s been from the start, and I do hope he gets the opportunity to one day ply his talents to a different movie, but it’s pretty clear to me that he’s enjoying what he’s setting up here as well.

As always, I tend to think that they get a good group of actors in these films, no big names, but solid talents who get the job done.  Returning here are actors Lyriq Bent as Rigg and Costas Mandylor as Detective Hoffman (seen in Saw 3 as well as other familiar faces from the series.  And of course, even though John Kramer is dead, veteran character actor Tobin Bell is back as Kramer in the flashback sequences and doing a fine job at that.  Special note has to be given to one of the new players here, TV actor Scott Patterson, who plays FBI agent Strahm.  He’s got a real serious Alec Baldwin type of intensity about him, and while I’m not that familiar with his TV work (the way I understand it, he’s been on Gilmore Girls and he’s done the voice of the King Faraday character on Justice League Unlimited), I definitely think the guy’s got a future in film.

I can only really recommend this film to those that have seen and enjoyed the prior three movies, it’s story is so integral to what has come before that anyone wanting to start the series with this film would be hopelessly lost trying to get caught up on all of the events, especially as they come together at the end.  But for you folks, like me, who are fans of the series, don’t hesitate for a moment… this is fun stuff, and it’ll make you want to watch everything again.