Denzel Washington gives one of his increasingly appealing, wise, movie star performances as a successful drug kingpin in the Universal 2-DiscUnrated Special Edition, American Gangster. As Washington’s stardom is sustained, he seems to be drifting away a little bit from acting – from trying to find the real emotional truth in every moment – but what he is doing instead is so crisp and irresistible that it is a great deal more satisfying … like dessert compared to vegetables. He gives a little grin and delivers what might be the most innocuous line imaginable, but he conveys such deft authority with each inflection and gesture that you’re spellbound by his every word and move. Poor Russell Crowe can’t sustain an American accent for a full movie to save his soul, but otherwise he carries the other half of the 2007 Ridley Scottfeature effectively, as a police detective (who later becomes a prosecutor working on the same case) trying to figure out just exactly who the drug kingpin is. The film is based upon a true story and delivers what feels at least like an accurate historical portrait of both the drug business and law enforcement in New York in the Seventies, doing so in a consistently engrossing and entertaining manner. The theatrical film runs 158 minutes and is a fully enjoyable concoction that will endure entirely because of the star power that is carrying it. On the same platter as the theatrical version, Universal has also included an ‘Unrated Extended Version,’ which runs 177 minutes. While the additional story details the longer version supplies are gratifying, the film’s tone shifts at the end, into the ‘white guy redeems the black guy’ cliché, which leaves the theatrical version as the more mature and stimulating cut.
The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. Scott has the daunting task of setting the film in New York City and New Jersey, but keeping it in period, and he pulls it off enjoyably well. The picture often has a gritty, street look, but that is conceptual and the color transfer is solid. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has some decent surround effects and a strong dimensional presence. There is an alternate French track in 5.1 Dolby and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian are intercut on a commentary track that runs over the theatrical release. Zaillian talks about wrangling the many details of the true story into a workable feature film. Both he and Scott reference the extensive research they did and share the insights they gained from it. Scott’s commentaries are always exemplary. He speaks instructively on various aspects of making the film-he talks quite a bit this time about choosing the music-breaks down the story and the character motivations as he sees them, and analyzes his own creative process, revealing that it has become more intuitive as he has gotten more films under his belt. “What I need as a director, what Russell needs as an actor, what Denzel needs as an actor are all kind of slightly different things. I like frugal, intelligent frugality, because that leaves me room to function because I’ll always stretch with what I do. What I do is not really discussible or describable, because half the time, I’m not sure what I’ll do yet until I actually get there, but once I get there, once I’ve seen all the locations and smelled all the wardrobe and smelled the paint inside the rooms and cast the people, I’ve got the universe in my head. Even as I’m driving in that morning, I’m knowing exactly what I’m going to do. The whole organic structure of the scene will be all laid out in my head, and that’s how it works. Whereas, actors are essentially on their own in relation to whoever they may be in the scene, and they of course, then, have to learn the words, so if the words aren’t learned or the words aren’t absolutely tied down, they ought to adjust them, then that has to come together. The other person is aware they are going to be adjusted. And frequently, a structured film like this doesn’t have time for rehearsal. People are always shocked about how little rehearsal I do. Russell likes to rehearse. Denzel, less. I think they’ve got a sense I’ll always arrive knowing exactly what I want them to do. ‘I’ve thought this, this, this, this, this.’ Silence. ‘Okay, you want to walk it?’ ‘Why not…’ We walk it. I say, ‘You want to shoot it?’ They say, ‘Okay.’ So then now we’re going to shoot it. That’s it. It defies all logic about film schools and acting schools and all that stuff. What it finally comes down to-these two arrive here incredibly experienced. Your experience will give you that probable confidence to push some things this way or that way, or recognize it when it’s happening, and then agree.”
The second platter contains a very good 78-minute production documentary with lots of excellent behind-the-scenes footage (one of the best segments-a look at the dolls that are used to fill an auditorium during a prize fight scene), supplemented by a terrific 25 minutes of additional footage concerning a script meeting, a discussion on how to test heroin purity, and the staging of an action sequence. The real life individuals represented by Russell and Crowe both participated in the film’s production and are given decent coverage in the documentary. There are also 4 minutes of deleted scenes, but they don’t amount to much-one, an alternate opening, would work better as a trailer teaser.
Universal has also released a 3-Disc Collector’s Edition. The first two platters are identical to the 2-Disc release. Accompanied by a glossy booklet containing photos and essays, the third platter features a 5-minute look at the acting and musical contributions of Common and T.I. to the film, a bland 18-minute promotional documentary, a much better 22-minute promotional documentary (Crowe says with amusement that he would have liked to have played Malcolm X), an Anthony Hamilton music video, a Jay-Z music video, a trailer, and the ability to download a copy of the Unrated version for playback on computers and handheld devices.
March 5, 2008
– by Douglas Pratt
Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
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