American Gangster, Blu-ray (2008)

by | Nov 1, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

American Gangster, Blu-ray (2008)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Armand Assante
Director: Ridley Scott
Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment 61105472
Video: 1.85:1 widescreen 16:9 color, 1080p HD
Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1; French DTS 5.1; English DD 2.0
Extras: Audio Commentary, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Alternate Opening, Music Videos, U-Control PIP content
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Feature Length: Theatrical Version: 158 minutes, Extended Version: 177 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

American Gangster is based on the true story of sixties-era New York mobster Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington) and cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe); Lucas was the right-hand man to the crime boss who ruled Harlem, and Roberts was an undercover vice cop just working a tough beat. Lucas’ boss instills a great deal of work ethic in him (seems odd to complement a mobster for his work ethics!), and is constantly referring to how the “middle man” in any situation just drives up prices for everyone. He soon dies of a heart attack, and a power struggle ensues between Lucas and his rivals for control of Harlem. Most of the mob business is in drugs, especially heroin, which by all accounts is heavily influenced by crooked New York City cops, who take seized heroin and cut it repeatedly to low purity then resell it to the mob at hefty prices.

Lucas discovers that a cousin is in the military in Thailand (remember, this is in the Vietnam era), and soon takes every dollar he can scrape together and goes there himself, working out deals with the drug producers to buy directly from them, and then also buys the necessary military personnel to have the drugs transported into the U.S. via military aircraft. When the first shipment arrives, it tests at 100 percent pure; he then oversees setting up a factory of sorts in the projects, where the drugs are cut to 50 percent purity and packaged in little blue envelopes. He sells his heroin at half the price everyone else is selling, because he’s eliminated all the middle men, and begins to make embarrassingly hefty profits. Soon he’s buying a Manhattan penthouse, getting a high-profile model for a girlfriend, and yet he’s still flying under all the law enforcement agency radars. He soon sends to North Carolina for all his family members, including his mother, and quickly builds his own “family” to move the drugs and process the profits.

Meanwhile, Richie Roberts is working the undercover beat, and it soon leads him to a million dollars in cash, and it becomes apparent that crooked cops are involved in the money situation. He turns in the money, but he and his partner are now marked men in a department filled with corruption. His partner is so paranoid by the turn of events, he soon becomes hooked on heroin, and is eventually found dead with one of the little blue packets in his pocket. Richie is determined to find the source of the heroin, and is soon approached by federal drug agents, who offer him a less stressful environment than his New York City undercover gig. He accepts, and begins assembling a task force to investigate the heroin traffic in NYC and the entire eastern seaboard, where there’s almost an epidemic of deaths from this unusually potent strain of the drug. Frank Lucas, meanwhile, is still completely unknown to just about everyone, except in Harlem, where he’s continued his predecessor’s legacy and become almost a Robin Hood figure to the locals.

I hadn’t seen this movie prior to the Blu-ray release, and I chose to watch the uncut version of the film, even though it clocked in at almost three hours. And for about the first two hours, I was almost totally captivated. There’s a sequence in the film that’s really remarkable – Frank Lucas is this mob boss, but he’s got this deeply ingrained sense of values that seems totally out of place for someone involved in such remorseless crimes. It’s Thanksgiving, and he’s gathered with his extended family, hands clasped while they say grace and thanks, just like a picture postcard. The scene is filled with vignettes of heroin addicts shooting up and often dying, with graphic images of the carnage left in the wake of their addictions. You almost admire Frank for the uncharacteristic goodness he displays when compared to the average Harlem hood, but his complete lack of conscience with regard to the wrong he’s perpetrating is staggering! Meanwhile, Richie is working diligently to stop the flow of drugs, and trying to figure out how to deal with the ever-increasing scope of police corruption surrounding his investigation. The last thirty minutes or so of the movie didn’t play out nearly as captivatingly as the first couple of hours, and I felt the ending was really uncharacteristically weak for a Ridley Scott film.

Technically, the film is excellent from an audio standpoint. The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is superb, and offers an excellent sense of envelopment throughout the action sequences, with the surrounds adding immeasurably to the perception of reality onscreen. There’s a really great sixties to seventies music soundtrack that comes across with an amazing presence; the surround sound design here was nothing short of superlative. Image quality, is, however, quite variable throughout. While this was probably by design – I felt that Ridley Scott was attempting to achieve more of a “vintage” and authentic look in the film – it also was often unnecessarily grainy, and the contrast was also quite poor. While the overall image was more than acceptable, it just seemed a little flat compared to other reference-quality Blu-ray discs.

I found this movie to be quite a captivating and entertaining watch, and while I wasn’t particularly happy with its denouement, it made for an exceptional “popcorn” flick, if not a timeless classic. Highly recommended!

— Tom Gibbs

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