The Talented(ish) Mr. Ridley
By Adam Nayman

American Gangster
Dir. Ridley Scott, U.S., Universal

Even when he does good work (Alien, and, um… well, Alien) I’ve never thought of Ridley Scott as a particularly personal filmmaker. That said, there is a scene in 2006’s A Good Year that suggests a modicum of self-awareness. Desperate to offload the French chateau he’s inherited from his eccentric uncle, slick London financier Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) decides to sell the place using the Internet. Informed by the sales agent that he’ll need some photos to show to prospective buyers, Max tears around the beautifully manicured grounds with a digital camera, clicking away indiscriminately before tumbling into a filthy, drained swimming pool. In this moment, Crowe is Scott’s sad surrogate, a grumpy, overstimulated tech-head flailing at pretty provincial pictures, losing his footing, and ending up covered in offal for his troubles.

Possible auto-critique aside, A Good Year was probably Scott’s worst film; American Gangster, which also stars Crowe (and, yes, Denzel Washington, hold your horses) is a definite improvement. Expensively mounted without being overly glossy (credit here to grit maestro DP Harris Savides, on one hell of a run) and populated almost entirely by familiar faces, it pivots on a well-established postulation: the mobster (or pusherman) as late-capitalist avatar. Certainly the story of Frank Lucas traces the rags-to-dirty-riches arc perfected in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, this film’s most obvious influence (note the producer credit for Wiseguy author Nicholas Pileggi). And like Henry Hill, Lucas rose to the top only to see the bottom fall out, and then, in a pique of self-preservation, he ratted on his associates.

The milieus are different, of course (tree-lined suburbs vs. inner-cityscapes), but there are fascinating material resonances. In both films, the purchase of a conspicuously expensive fur coat signals the beginning of the fall. In Goodfellas, Robert DeNiro’s “Fast” Jimmy Conway bawls out an underling for buying his wife a slinky mink number after a lucrative heist; in Gangster, Lucas (Washington) silently burns a chinchilla coat given to him by his wife after realizing it’s made him too conspicuous to the investigators on his tail. A few scenes later, detective Richie Roberts (Crowe) and the members of his special narcotics task force will comment on the relative asceticism of Lucas’s lifestyle. While his associates live it up in super-fly style, the kingpin does his best to remain inconspicuous.

Lucas’s self-effacement runs counter to the flashy threads and club-hopping ethos favored by his contemporary and drug-trade competitor Nicky Barnes (a properly flamboyant Cuba Gooding Jr). Crowe’s proudly incorruptible Roberts is given an opposite number, too, in the form of one detective Trupo (Josh Brolin, apparently the new Danny Huston), a wolfish asshole used to getting payoffs from his ostensible quarry and frustrated with Lucas’s rather more tight-fisted administration. If it sounds like the film is drawing clammy equivocations between the honest cop and the more-honest-than-most gangster, that’s because it is, sort of. Certainly, a sequence cross-cutting between the Lucas clan’s solemn Christmas table prayers and a few of the gibbering, half-dead junkies who’ve paid for their meal undercuts the idea of the noble free-market conqueror. But the script’s conception of Lucas is still a shade too attractive. Aside from the first shot, which sees Lucas aiding in the street corner immolation of some anonymous snitch, American Gangster is reticent to show him doing anything too shocking. The broad daylight murder of an enemy is played to hint that the bastard deserved it; when Lucas agrees to inform at the end, it’s framed as a righteous attempt to get the real bad guys, the crooked cops.

Washington plays the role as it’s written rather than trying to push beyond its sham parameters, and so his performance, however skilful, doesn’t quite work. But Crowe, who had his own nadir in A Good Year, is terrific. He gets inside his character’s paunchy, punchy skin, eschewing vanity for perfectly modulated physical gestures. A throwaway bit where Roberts is completing the New York state bar exam (which really happened— and he really ended up defending Lucas in court, too) is punctuated by a beautiful, entirely unforced piece of business with a wristwatch. Crowe is asked to play some questionable scenes—like a stagy custody hearing bawl out by his ex-wife (Carla Gugino)—but, beyond simply surviving them, he makes them work (as he did in the otherwise deadening Cinderella Man).

That quality of pushing through also applies to Scott’s direction. The common denominator across his career has been ponderous beauty-mongering (there are transition shots in Hannibal that look as if they took half a day to light properly), and while American Gangster isn’t exactly fleet at two-and-a-half hours, it does move from left to right. Scott can’t charge a crime story with electricity like Scorsese (the film never pulsates like Goodfellas) and he doesn’t have Michael Mann’s formalist chops (it lacks the gravitas of The Insider), but there are fewer bad decisions made here than in either The Departed or Miami Vice. The action scenes aren’t a patch on those in James Gray’s intermittently stunning We Own the Night (which has some of the visual dynamism misattributed to Scorsese’s Oscar-winning boondoggle), but they’re spatially coherent. And where Gray has been criticized for fudging period details, Scott is dogged in pushing a sense of time and place. Every television in the film is set to the Exposition Channel, taking us through the duration of the Vietnam War.

Ostentatious as this may be, it’s also acceptable given the facts of Lucas’s enterprise. Not only did his trademark “Blue Magic” heroin come from Indochina, it was shipped to the U.S. inside the coffins of dead servicemen. The linkage of disastrous endeavors abroad with accelerated domestic rot has an accusatory tingle in light of current, above-board war profiteering, but American Gangster is more opportunistic than incisive. It scores easy points off of a racist government official (Roger Bart) who refuses to believe that a “nigger” has gotten the Old World goombas to work for him (and he calls Roberts a “kike” for good measure) and Richard Nixon’s pixilated black-and-white scowl.

I had to laugh this week when Armond White labeled Scott an “ultrahack”—his disdain is on point. But if hackery does indeed have a hierarchy, then American Gangster re-orients Scott near the top—and not in a bad way. It doesn’t bear the imprimatur of an artist, but rather the stamp of an artisan. I’ll take well-made and impersonal over airy and pretentious or lurid and dubiously “lived in,” to cite two recent critical faves (The Assassination of Jesse James and Gone Baby Gone). American Gangster isn’t really any closer to being a masterpiece than those films, but its ultrahackery bests their faux-auterism. Scott’s triumph, such as it is, lies not in the pushing of envelopes or the breaking of molds, but a marked absence of awfulness and the sheer attrition of competence.