THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

(based on the THOR comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins & Benedict Cumberbatch

THOR: RAGNAROK is the third THOR film and the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR was easily the weakest origin story in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. THOR: THE DARK WORLD served as an entertaining sequel, but couldn’t reach the heights of the rest of MCU’s second phase of films. THOR: RAGNAROK is easily the best THOR yet (not exactly high praise) and is a highly entertaining mythological superhero romp. While I don’t think this third THOR is nearly as awesome as some folks have been making it out to be, there’s loads of fun to be had and it’s a big step up in quality from the rest of 2017’s MCU offerings (including the vastly overrated SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and the slightly underwhelming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2).

Two years after the events in THE DARK WORLD, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has discovered that his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over the home world Asgard and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been banished. While on the journey to bring his dear old daddy home, Thor discovers that an ancient prophecy is coming to light and it might spell doom for all Asgardians. Unfortunately, god of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned and seems hellbent on conquering Asgard. All the while, Thor has wound up stranded on a junk planet in the clutches of the cruelly kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to save his people from destruction, Thor must fight his way through gladiator battles, unite with old friends and new faces, and find a way to stop the seemingly undefeatable Hela.

RAGNAROK follows the usual superhero formula and is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of its plot. There’s an evil bad gal who’s bent on world domination, an ancient prophecy that might be fulfilled, and a story arc that must be experienced by our main hero that causes him to grow even more powerful. However, THOR: RAGNAROK does something extremely well that the other THOR films only did occasionally well. It’s funny, really funny. Not just in scenes that feature Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (who still remains a charming fan favorite) either, but also in nearly every moment. RAGNAROK contains more laughs than pretty much any other MCU entry, with the sole exception being the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Viewers who watch RAGNAROK in search of other Marvel goodies will receive those in spades too because this plot also serves as the best HULK movie never made. To elaborate further, Thor’s entrapment on the junk planet is blended with the much celebrated PLANET HULK storyline. Hulk’s inclusion gives Thor another hero to relate to and shows that Hulk can star in a great movie that doesn’t need to involve all of the other Avengers. Also, the end credits scene promises serious stakes for the upcoming INFINITY WAR (which hits next May) and Benedict Cumberbatch squeezes in five minutes of (very funny) screen time as Doctor Strange. Tessa Thompson adds a fresh new heroine to MCU’s mix as the hard-drinking, harder-hitting Valkyrie, while Idris Elba doesn’t get receive much to do as Heimdall.

RAGNAROK mainly falters in its big antagonist. Cate Blanchett’s Hela looks cool as all hell. Her intimidating costume design and weaponized black spikes that fly from her body are pure eye candy. Sadly, that doesn’t translate into her as a character though, because she’s just another bland baddie who wants to take over the world. I found her slightly reluctant lackey Skurge (played by Karl Roden) to be a much more interesting character and his story arc (though familiar) was far more satisfying. Hell, I even felt that Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a far superior villain to Hela. Grandmaster had an odd kookiness to him and still came off as threatening, though simultaneously hilarious. I guess I’m saying that I wish Hela had been more interesting and that Grandmaster had even more screen time.

If you are a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (and you should know if you are by the seventeenth film in the long-running franchise), then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in THOR: RAGNAROK. The by-the-numbers plot may be familiar, but the hilarious, colorful and spectacle-loaded execution kept me smiling from ear to ear as the entire movie played out. The film’s main problems arrive in Hela looking cool, but being rather bland. However, Goldblum’s Grandmaster is worth the price of admission alone. RAGNAROK also injects a few much-needed risks into the MCU that will likely pay off in big ways during INFINITY WAR. THOR: RAGNAROK comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

FINDING DORY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for mild Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Andrew Stanton

Written by: Andrew Stanton & Victoria Strouse

Voices of: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Alexander Gould, Ed O’Neil, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Michael Sheen, Andrew Stanton, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver, Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett & Stephen Root

Ever since Pixar was bought by Disney, the studio has produced more sequels and less original films. We’ve had a third TOY STORY installment (which was amazing), CARS 2 (their worst film thus far), MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (an okay-at-best prequel) and still face a growing horde of follow-ups on the horizon with TOY STORY 4, CARS 3, and THE INCREDIBLES 2. 2003’s FINDING NEMO seemed highly unlikely to receive a sequel and stood perfectly fine by itself as one of the Pixar’s finest films. Still, here we are. Thirteen years after NEMO’s original theatrical run, we have FINDING DORY, which is a surprisingly solid second installment.

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A year has passed since the events of FINDING NEMO. Clownfish father Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are peacefully living in their sea anemone home, now with forgetful blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) as their neighbor. Things have settled down for Marlin and Nemo, but that suddenly changes when Dory is struck by a resurgence of long-lost memories. It turns out that Dory has a family and lives somewhere in the California area. Desperate to be reunited with her formerly forgotten parents, Dory makes her way across the ocean with Marlin and Nemo in tow. However, her adventure becomes complicated when an aquarium “saves” Dory and the two clownfish are forced to go on an improvised rescue mission.

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Like most sequels in any genre, FINDING DORY doesn’t quite measure up to the quality of its predecessor. The plot follows a story that’s noticeably similar to the first film. When Dory is “rescued,” Marlin even exclaims “Not again!” as if to call attention to this. However, this sequel avoids simply repeating old plot points by introducing new characters, changing the setting and bringing a different set of stakes. One fantastic tweak in the story are emotional flashbacks to Dory’s childhood. Besides baby Dory being Pixar’s cutest creation ever, the blasts from this blue fish’s past lay out certain details in advance and give the audience a deep desire to see Dory happily reunited with her parents. These flashbacks don’t feel forced or heavily loaded with exposition either. They contain the right mixture of clever dialogue, heartwarming humor, and utter cuteness.

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FINDING DORY surprisingly doesn’t stumble into the typical sequel pitfall of trying to reincorporate too many characters from the original film. That film was chock full of unforgettable fishy friends and each served a distinct purpose in the movie’s storyline. DORY has a few returning faces (the singing Stingray, surfer turtle Crush, and a great after-credits cameo), but it mainly relies on a new handful of underwater characters that are just as entertaining to watch and contribute to the plot in their own special ways. Surprisingly, these come in voices from MODERN FAMILY and IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA.

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Ed O’Neill is perfectly cast as Hank, a grumpy red octopus with a heart of gold. Ty Burrell lends his unique vocals to beluga whale Bailey and provides one of the funniest story arcs, while Kaitlin Olson voices gentile whale shark Destiny. Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy serve as Dory’s forgotten-but-now-remembered parents in the many flashbacks throughout. Meanwhile, Dominic Cooper and Idris Elba are hysterical as two territorial sea lions. Even though FINDING DORY only brings back the “Mine!” seagulls for a very brief moment, these sea lions officially made up for that and had me laughing every single time they were on the screen.

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My only complaint with FINDING DORY comes from its changed environment. While the first film was an adventure that spanned across half the ocean and packed in lots of excitement, a majority of this sequel takes place within a California aquarium. This smaller location offers new characters, new jokes, and a more contained set of emotional stakes, but definitely lessens the exciting adventure aspect of the story. FINDING DORY is a very different film than FINDING NEMO in this regard, yet still can’t help but feel like a slight downgrade due to the crazy amounts of danger that the fishy protagonists faced in the first film. The only hazards Dory, Marlin and Nemo come into contact with are aquarium procedures, disgruntled staff members, and one angry sea creature (which felt a tad lazy).

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This complaint is very small in the overall scheme of FINDING DORY. The animation is exactly what you’d expect from Pixar at this point, which is to say it looks amazing, colorful and vibrant. The writing is smart and engaging, even if the adventure aspect is lessened from the first film (which seemed like an insurmountable predecessor to begin with). The emotions are spot-on as Dory’s past is built upon through adorable, heart-warming/wrenching flashbacks. DORY’s non-linear storyline never once feels forced or dull either. FINDING DORY shows that Pixar can still crank out great films, even if those movies happen to be sequels (a feat that had only previously been seen in TOY STORY 2 and 3).

Grade: A-

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Sequences of Scary Action and Peril

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Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Justin Marks

(based on THE JUNGLE BOOK by Richard Kipling)

Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito & Christopher Walken

After playing second fiddle to Pixar for years and hitting a stream of live-action flops along the way, it seems that Disney has been on a drastic upswing with live-action retellings of their animated classics. The latest title on their docket is THE JUNGLE BOOK, based upon Richard Kipling’s short story collection of the same name. Before walking into this movie, I read up on the process of how it was filmed. Apparently, it was entirely shot in a Los Angeles studio with tons of computer effects making up the locations and (obviously) the animals. That is incredible given how realistic and detailed every frame of this movie looks. Even if you ignore the undeniably impressive effects, this new JUNGLE BOOK is a very entertaining adventure for the whole family.

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Mowgli is a young boy who was orphaned deep in the jungle. This man cub was raised alongside wolves, with panther Bagheera serving as a would-be parental figure. When a particularly hot dry season arrives, Mowgli’s way of life is threatened by evil tiger Shere Khan, who vows to hunt and kill the boy when the rainy season returns. Soon enough, rain begins poring and Mowgli is forced to make his way across the treacherous jungle in order to be with his own kind. Along his way, he’ll meet an assortment of colorful characters. There’s lazy bear Baloo, who becomes a friend, while giant orangutan King Louie and massive snake Kaa serve as newly found antagonists. All the while, Shere Khan waits for his chance to pounce.

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I already mentioned JUNGLE BOOK’s insanely detailed effects, but they cannot be talked about enough. This is the best CGI that I’ve seen in a long time. The environments look completely realistic and the animals (despite human speech coming from their mouths) are convincing. One might imagine that human voices coming from realistic looking animals might appear somewhat silly, but JUNGLE BOOK pulls off this fantastical feat in an extraordinary way. I was entranced by this animated on-screen world and never once felt like this film went over-the-top, even though that easily could have happened in lesser hands.

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The vocal work is great from the A-list cast. Lupita Nyong’o plays wolf-mother Raskha, Bill Murray perfectly inhabits jokey Baloo, and Ben Kingsley wonderfully fits wise Bagheera. Shere Kahn is voiced menacingly by Idris Elba and the more subtle moments of this villain fully showcase his vicious nature. A big standout is Christopher Walken as King Louie, who comes off as simultaneously comical and intimidating. Walken even gets to do a bit of singing with the tune “I Wanna Be Like You,” which I am still humming as I type this review. Though she serves as little more than glorified cameo, Scarlett Johansson adds a bit of charm as the calm, deadly Kaa.

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The only live-action performance in the film comes from newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli. Major props to this kid, because he was essentially acting against nothing and does a solid job for 90% of the film. The other 10% comes from a few moments of line delivery that sounded a bit awkward. However, the lame excuse of this kid being a first-time child actor could also easily wipe away my complaint with his performance. Neel Sethi is a convincing enough lead and mostly sells the more emotional moments. One of the most moving scenes in the film is a conversation between Neel Sethi’s Mowgli and wolf mother Rashka, which solely depended solely on Sethi’s acting abilities.

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This new JUNGLE BOOK is well-paced as the nearly two-hour running time flew by. We are treated to a few cool plot devices early on that come back in a big way. The script also doesn’t follow the exact motions of the 1967 animated classic or the underrated 1994 live-action effort. Instead, big changes have been made to the plot that actually benefitted it. I really loved this movie’s conclusion and the final face-off with Shere Kahn is far better than previous interpretations of the material. What is sort of awkward are two songs (“Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You”) in the otherwise straightforward narrative, which were enjoyable and also felt like they were included purely for nostalgia.

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2016’s JUNGLE BOOK reinterprets an old Disney classic in a groundbreaking effects-laden new way. The film has an already talented voice cast who are made even more impressive by animation that doesn’t make talking animals look silly. The movie runs on three modes: exciting, funny, and heartwarming. As a result, it’s never allowed time to drag and never bored me in the slightest. I may have mild annoyances with certain parts of the film, but I had fun watching it the whole way through. Families are bound to have a great time, as will older viewers who simply want to watch a quality effort from Disney. Christopher Walken as a talking, dancing giant ape is worth the price of admission alone!

Grade: B+

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Thematic Elements, Rude Humor and Action

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Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore & Jared Bush

Written by: Jared Bush & Phil Johnston

Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Alan Tudyk & Kristen Bell

I wasn’t exactly excited to watch ZOOTOPIA. Though Disney seems to be on a winning streak lately, their previous attempt to capture an anthropomorphic animal society (CHICKEN LITTLE) was less than stellar. Though the DMV sloth trailer made me laugh and the reviews have been nothing but great, I still had my doubts walking into ZOOTOPIA. I was pleasantly surprised. ZOOTOPIA is a vibrant, creative, very funny film for the whole family that also packs a nice message into its package. This movie is far smarter than I expected it to be and is guaranteed to entertain viewers of all ages in equal measures.

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Zootopia is a big city populated by anthropomorphic mammals. Both predators and prey inhabit this massive metropolis. It’s a place where young Judy Hopps has always wanted to live. Despite her small stature, Hopps became the world’s first rabbit police officer and has been assigned to serve in Zootopia as the result of a mammal inclusion program. However, Hopps’s captain is unenthused about her presence and assigns her the less than glamorous position of meter maid. Desperate to prove herself, Officer Hopps agrees to solve a seemingly impossible case or resign from the force. With a ticking clock and no big clues to speak of, Judy Hopps and streetwise fox Nick Wilde must find a missing otter within 48 hours.

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ZOOTOPIA might sound like a fairly simple and to-the-point animated comedy from that synopsis, but one of the best qualities in this movie is how it wisely changes the viewer’s expectations as it goes along. My set up of the story is only a small portion of a much larger film that packs in a lot of twists, clever humor, and poignant social commentary. Sure, the overall messages about acceptance and discrimination are blatantly obvious, but they never feel too preachy. On the contrary, some of the biggest laughs come from animal “slurs” and species stereotypes. However, the film also balances this humor with a touching story that has real emotional moments.

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Judy Hopps will serve as a good role model for kids, but my favorite character is Nick Wilde (voiced perfectly by Jason Bateman). Though his character might seemingly live up to every cunning fox stereotype that you would expect (hence feeding into the overall message of the film), there are complex inner workings and an instant likability to this smart-aleck predator. These qualities are evident in one of the film’s most emotional moments: an honest heart-to-heart between Nick and Judy. Though the city of Zootopia is vast and packed with many species of entertaining animals, some notable names in the supporting cast include: Idris Elba (the harsh buffalo police captain), J.K. Simmons (the lion mayor), Jenny Slate (the sheep assistant mayor), and Nate Torrence (the cheetah dispatcher).

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The locations in ZOOTOPIA are brought to life through beautiful animation with lots of vibrant colors and creativity. You can tell that a lot of thought, effort, and imagination went into putting together ZOOTOPIA as the smallest details have been thought of and addressed. There are various environments throughout the city (rainforest, frozen tundra, etc.) for different species as well as everything being accurate to the sizes of the animal citizens (mice use small tubes to travel, giraffes have chutes that send up their coffee, etc.). The humor is also to be praised as kids will enjoy goofy physical comedy and “naked” animals at a naturalist colony, but there’s an equal amount of smart laughs to be had for older viewers. Try to name another Disney film that references both THE GODFATHER and BREAKING BAD.

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Though Pixar has become hit-or-miss since 2010 (with INSIDE OUT being their top-notch return to form), Disney Animation seems to be going through a current Renaissance (much akin to the Disney Renaissance from ’89 to ’99). ZOOTOPIA is the latest in the ever-growing line of modern Disney classics (including FROZEN, WRECK-IT RALPH, and TANGLED). There’s not much else to say about this film without sounding repetitive. The animation is great. The humor is funny. The message is touching and relevant. The characters are lovable. The writing is smart. See it!

Grade: A

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

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