As I sit down to write my thoughts on this HD-DVD release of "American Gangster," the predominant thought is that this title may very well be the final new title from Universal on the format. The studio has "Fletch" listed for a March 11th release and that catalog title may or may not see the light of day, but if it does it will likely be the very final HD-DVD release from the former strong supporter of Toshiba's high definition format. On the day when Toshiba laid its beloved format to rest, Universal quickly aligned themselves with Blu-ray and after canceling a few upcoming re-releases of some HD-DVD / DVD Combo format titles, the final stream of films is upon us. I am saddened to see HD-DVD go the way of the LaserDisc, but once the Blu-ray format is finalized and players that are capable of playing Profile 2.0 are available, I will start saying goodbye to my extensive collection of HD-DVD titles. "American Gangster" will be one of the very final releases to sit on my HD-DVD shelf.
The film finds the power trio of Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott combining their talents to bring the true-life story of Harlem gangster Frank Lucas. With two of today's finest actors and an A-List director, "American Gangster" is a capable film that suffers from bending the truth a little too much to make one man's story far more entertaining than it was in reality, but if you take "American Gangster" with a huge grain of salt, it is an entertaining and convincing film. While the real Frank Lucas has praised the film and its star and suggested it is an accurate portrayal (the film is based in part on Lucas' novel), others have come forth and stated that the film does not accurately portray most of its events and the story is more fictitious than it is truthful. Others that featured in the film have rejected many of the key plotlines in the film. More on that later.
Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas. Russell Crowe is New Jersey detective Richie Roberts. Lucas begins in the film as the driver for renowned and respected gangster Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). Bumpy is loved by the residents of Harlem and viewed as a ‘Robin Hood' of the black community. He hands out turkeys for Thanksgiving, but rules with an iron fist over his constituents. One day while stopping into an electronics store, Bumpy has a fatal heart attack and leaves his empire in the hands of his driver, Lucas, who he has slowly groomed to carry on Bumpy's business. As Bumpy's driver, Lucas was able to witness all of Bumpy's daily interactions and transactions and has a strong understanding of how to do business on the streets.
Lucas is not shown respect when Bumpy first passes, but he quickly uses whatever force is necessary to run Harlem more effectively than Bumpy had previously done. He brings his mother and family from North Carolina to help run his business and they each take over a supporting business of the Lucas' crime empire to assist in moving the drugs that Lucas calls ‘Blue Magic.' His mother (Ruby Dee) is given ownership of a beautiful mansion and his brothers Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Turner (Common) and Stevie (Clifford Joseph Harris) are quick to embrace the rich lifestyle provided by Frank. The key move that allows Lucas to succeed against rival drug czars such as Nick Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) is by importing his drugs directly from Vietnam by using American military planes and personnel to bring his illegal product into the country.
Meanwhile, Richie Roberts and his partner Javier Rivera (John Ortiz) have a stake out go bad and recover a million dollars of unmarked bills. They turn the money over to the police department, but their act of honesty turns many cops against them as their honesty and integrity are questioned by police officers that are either clean or dirty. With no trust among his fellow officers, Roberts finds his life struggling even further. His estranged wife Laurie (Carla Gugino) is threatening to take his son to Las Vegas and away from her cheating husband and the dangerous line of work Roberts performs. He is also taking night classes to become a lawyer and finds it difficult to juggle his career and his studies.
A turn of events finds Roberts being tasked by his captain, Lou Toback (Ted Levine), to create a new task force with the sole intent on bringing down key figures in the drug trafficking and selling business in the tri-state area. Roberts investigates a number of key suspects, but eventually his leads all begin to point towards Frank Lucas as being the new kingpin. Roberts finds Lucas and his people the lesser danger in bringing the criminal to justice as crooked cops such as Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) are putting the heat on Roberts to leave their cash cow Frank Lucas alone. Roberts eventually finds enough evidence to gain a subpoena and bring down the drug packaging facility run by Lucas. This creates a partnership between Lucas and Roberts where they work together to bring down drug dealers and dirty police officers as part of a plea bargain.
Denzel Washington is simply one of the finest actors to live. Period. He is incredible in his portrayal of Frank Lucas and while the truth may be suspect, the real Frank Lucas has stated that Washington perfectly captured his likeness and personality. As Lucas, Washington is always thinking and always aware of his surroundings. He is calculating and precise in his business and only Denzel Washington can bring the businesslike honesty of the character in the manner in which he has done. Lucas is a dangerous man, but also a caring man and this juxtaposition of personality is something else that only an actor of Washington's caliber can deliver. Some could argue that Washington's performance is akin to other films he has starred in, but I find it a performance worthwhile of an Oscar Nomination.
Russell Crowe is a character actor in every sense of the word. For a man known for his leading man looks and capable physique, Crowe is hardly noticeable as Richie Roberts. He has once again gained a good deal of weight to bring believability to his character and his Seventies-styled haircut fits the bill perfectly. Crowe may not deliver as solid a performance as Denzel Washington, but he does a formidable job of portraying a tough city cop in a decade when the world was quite different. As I watched the film I couldn't help but believe that Crowe is destined to portray Steve Irwin at some point in the future, but this notion was only due to a similarity in build, hairstyle and the fact I know they are both Aussies. Crowe is stellar as a New Jersey cop.
The supporting cast is also worth mentioning. Ted Levine is making a name for himself in portraying police Captains or others in a position of power. He does a great job here. John Hawkes is one of my favorite supporting characters since I became hooked on HBO's "Deadwood" and he has a small role in the film, but makes the best of his screen time. Ruby Dee is a wonderful lady and quite convincing opposite Washington. Rappers Common and RZA handle their roles just fine and it seems that today's raptors (Rapper-Actors) are making the transition easily from microphone to camera. Norman Reedus and Josh Brolin are other familiar faces that are weaved nicely into Ridley Scott's vision of the life of Frank Lucas. Up and coming Chiwetel Ejiofor has a nice supporting role as does veteran actor Armand Assante.
Director Ridley Scott has had his hits and he has had his misses. "American Gangster" is an epic story of the corruption of New York City police officers and the rise of one of America's most successful gangsters, Frank Lucas. He has either taken a great deal of liberties with the story or involved himself too closely with Lucas' own opinion of himself and the film has been surrounded with a deal of controversy. The real Richie Roberts has become friends with Lucas and has stated that many of the events in the film are fictitious. Police officers that were involved in events depicted in the film have come forth and sued Universal for deformation of character. There is also no evidence that Lucas ever used the caskets of American soldiers to traffic drugs.
With the inaccuracies and controversy in mind, it is hard to gauge of how much fact is contained within the film's long running time of 158 minutes. I had not known about the fictitious nature of the film and was impressed with the stories of Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas, but now I do feel somewhat betrayed in knowing much of the film is likely rubbish. When watching the film for this HD-DVD review, I was aware of the historical inaccuracies, but I now find myself entertained by a highly entertaining story of an American gangster and it is hard to escape the allure of a film as finely crafted and well acted as this Ridley Scott picture. The movie may be a tall tale, but it is a tall tale worth listening to. Perhaps "American Gangster" is geared more towards delivering Frank Lucas' vision of himself and not what really happened, it is a well crafted and acted film and shouldn't be ignored simply because it stretches the truth.
I enjoyed "American Gangster" a great deal and have seen the film now three times. The first time I watched the film was theatrically on opening night. The second two times were to screen the two versions contained on this HD-DVD / DVD Combo Format release. After three viewings, I would not have any difficulty in watching the movie again. The movie brings to life New York City in the Seventies and this film is far more powerful than any of the countless CSI spinoffs on television. I love a film that tells a story and tells it well. I don't watch a movie solely for the purpose of being educated. If that was the case, I would never leave home and sit back and indulge in the History Channel or the Discovery Channel. There is enough truth in "American Gangster" to make it worth my time, but Denzel Washington makes the film well worth my time.
I am somewhat saddened by the quality of this title in what is now the closing moments in HD-DVD's life. I was most eager to sit back and enjoy the eighteen minute longer ‘Unrated Extended Version' and was frustrated to discover that the longer version of the film was located solely on the DVD side of the combo format release. The picture quality of the DVD side of the dual-sided platter wouldn't pass as top-of-the-line DVD and I was instantly worried that the drab and lifeless looking DVD transfer would be equally less impressive once I flipped the disc over. Sure, Ridley Scott and director of photography Harris Savides had intended to give the film a gritty Seventies appeal to it, but the purposely dated look to the picture doesn't lend itself well to the DVD format. I was disappointed to be required to watch the longer cut on the DVD side and I was disappointed in the quality of the DVD video.
Then I turned the disc over. The 1.85:1 film is mastered with the VC-1 codec at 1080p resolution. It is far sharper in detail than the DVD side, but coloring is still hindered by the washed out and dull Seventies palette and the HD-DVD release of "American Gangster" is hardly the swan song for the format that I had hoped for. Detail is strong, but not nearly as sharp as one typically witnesses on the format. Scott wanted a soft aged look for the film and this decision results in a good, but not incredibly amount of detail. Coloring is as strong as the muted palette allows. I saw some very pretty powder blue paint jobs on cars, but the palette is dominated by blacks, browns and grays. I can honestly say that Scott and company crafted a good looking film that brings back thoughts of the decade its story takes place in, but in today's new millennium and high definition world, this isn't a film that will impress technophiles. The source materials are clean and all-in-all it is a technically sound release.
One starts to wonder if Universal's heart was really in this release after discovering that the longer cut was omitted from the high definition side and that there was absolutely no ‘next-gen' audio tracks provided on the release. The studio has done a good job in recent times of packaging some rather good Dolby TrueHD soundtracks with their new and catalog titles, but this isn't the case with "American Gangster." I don't know of how much of a problem the storage limitations of HD-DVD were in this slimmed down release, but the lack of a good high definition soundtrack hinders this title further more from presenting itself as the last great breathe of HD-DVD.
The disc does come packed with English and French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtracks. They sound quite good as far as Dolby Digital mixes go, but the film is neither aggressive nor excitable for much of its running length. The soundtrack is clean, but I was surprised to discover that the film keeps its sound mainly contained in the front three channels. Rear surrounds and the .1 LFE channel are used, but not nearly as effectively as they could have been. About an hour into the film I can recall a moment where a phone is left to ring. The phone stops, Ted Levine steps in and the score by Marc Streitenfeld kicked in with some deep bass to suggest a serious tone to the events. With so much potential for ambient noise or support for the soundtrack in the rears, the remained mostly silent and bass was handled primarily by the front speakers. I'm not sure if Scott had intended the film to sound as limited as a Seventies film, but it hardly can rival recent competitors. A few cars do bleed to the rears and some minor environmental effects are thrown to the rear, but this is a calm sounding mix. Dialogue is strong and intelligible.
The standard definition side contains the Unrated Extended Version that is touted on the rear packaging. With a length of 177 minutes, the longer cut adds a few pivotal scenes that include a long alternate ending that showcases the budding friendship between the film's two main characters. I'm undecided on whether or not I liked the longer ending more, but the remainder of the scenes contained in the film was short pieces of fluff that only padded the length of the film. The full theatrical version of the film was contained on the standard definition side as well and contained the Feature Commentary with Director Ridley Scott and Writer Steven Zaillian.
The commentary track features the director and the writer and is contained on both sides of the disc. This is the only major and effective supplement of the HD-DVD release. I must say that I was not overly impressed with the commentary track and flipping through a few of the film's chapters solidified my initial impression that the track is dominated by Zaillian and that he is the far more entertaining and informative of the participants. There were a few long pauses in the film where little to know information was thrown to the audience, but a three hour film is allowed to have a few pauses. Scott doesn't seem overly excited in his words and I can't imagine sitting through the full commentary.
The remaining supplements are nowhere near as nice as what is included on the 2-disc DVD. The HD-DVD release does include some U-Control functionality and the Picture-in-Picture capability is put to use. About a fifth of the film is actually populated by PiP information and some of the video shorts are too short and too lacking in information to be of value. Some footage was simply a behind-the-scenes shot of the scene in question being filmed. This was easily the least impressive of the U-Control equipped releases from the studio. Universal has also included My Scenes and some Web-Enabled Content that doesn't add any additional information to the film itself.
The features culled from the superior DVD offerings include very little. The rear packaging throws out the obligatory "And More!" to suggest a plethora of content, but those two words pertain to essentially one bonus feature beyond what is listed. This feature, Uncovering the Past: The Real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts (4:46) is incredibly short and promotional in nature. I am guessing this was pieced together from the longer documentary contained on the DVD and although I enjoyed seeing the real personalities in this vignette, it needed to be longer. Brian Grazer's hair continues to scare me. The eight Deleted Scenes (9:14) are listed on the rear packaging and contain moments found in the extended cut of the film and an alternate ending that was previously hinted at after the credits. Sadly, they are shown in standard definition.
"American Gangster" on HD-DVD is one of the final major releases on the soon to be defunct format. Paramount has "Sweeney Todd," "Beowulf," and "Bee Movie" coming, but Universal has only "Fletch" on its plate. I wonder if the studio lost its heart with this film, because the DVD releases are far superior in bonus materials and the sound and video of this release are not that impressive. The film is technically sound, but whereas the studio had such a good track record of supporting the format, they appear to have turned an early cold shoulder to HD-DVD; before they made their announcement of going Blu. I can't fault them, but I wanted more of this swan song. Hopefully, the Blu-ray release will be better when it arrives, but this is a sad statement for such a high quality film featuring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
In all likelihood, this is my final HD-DVD review. I still have a very small backlog of three Universal titles that do not play properly on my new Toshiba HD-A35 unit and had intended to try and play the discs on another machine to see if they were the discs or something wrong with my unit. One title is "Mobsters" and I'm not sure I want that film to have the distinction of being the final time I was given the opportunity to write about a format that I've supported since day one. I've been ‘purple' in supporting both formats, but I found that HD-DVD was my preferred HD format. It was a complete standard and worked well for me. Where I had more red in my blood than blue, the decision has been made that my blood must run blue. If my last title to review on the beloved format is to be a gangster film, then I want it to be "American Gangster." Rest in peace HD-DVD. We hardly knew you.