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

EVEREST (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Peril and Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Baltasar Kormakur

Written by: William Nicholson & Simon Beaufoy

Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson & Thomas Wright

Having not read the book INTO THIN AIR (which many of my friends have endlessly recommended to me), I walked into EVEREST knowing next to nothing about the true events that inspired this film. I was sold strictly on the premise, cast, and marketing. This looked like an intense, beautifully shot, and emotional disaster flick. For the most part, it is. Though the sizeable cast and lengthy running time become detrimental to the storytelling, EVEREST serves as a thrilling “based on a true story” film in which a group of adventurers hike up the world’s tallest mountain and find themselves woefully unprepared for the danger that awaits them.

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The time is 1996 and various hiking organizations have set up camps at the base of Mount Everest. These groups (springing from New Zealand, America, South Africa, etc.) have taken it upon themselves to line the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain with various ropes and ladders. The purpose of this being that even mere novices could reach the summit of Mount Everest with a professional guide’s help. This year, New Zealander Rob Hall of Adventure Consultants has a rather large group of hikers and so does American Scott Fischer of Mountain Madness. Due to the sheer size of their teams and a potentially hazardous waiting time, the two men decide to combine their groups for an expedition to the summit of Everest. Unfortunately, nobody expects two vicious storms that arrive just as the group is turning around from the summit. This force of nature will cost some hikers their lives and inspire others to rise above overwhelming odds of certain death…

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Though pieces of the film were shot on location at the actual Everest base camp, most of the Mount Everest imagery is actually made up of the Otztal Alps in Italy. I’ll be damned if they’re not a convincing substitute. To be completely honest, the main reason you should see EVEREST is for the visuals alone. This film feels and looks huge. You get the sense that these characters are venturing into a place where Mother Nature has the ultimate upper hand. The cinematography, locations and sets all had me convinced that what I was seeing was real, if only for the two hours I sat in the theater. Speaking of which, the main way to experience this movie is on the big screen. For the sheer scope of the film, you will want to see it in a huge theater. I imagine that it won’t play nearly as well on home video or cable.

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As impressive as the visuals are and as harrowing as the film feels, EVEREST does encounter problems in both pacing and characters. We don’t simply start the film with the hikers venturing up Mount Everest, but get a long introduction of them trying to climatize to the environment because one does not simply climb Everest. This build-up portion of the film runs arguably a bit too long. That can be said for various other parts of the movie as well, even once the disaster is in full force. Rest assured, there are intense moments and I’m sure that the movie might hit the emotions harder of someone who has read INTO THIN AIR, but I felt the film noticeably dragged in spots.

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As far as characters go, there are a lot of them and EVEREST tries to juggle all of them equally. More time is definitely spent on Rob Hall (a well-cast Jason Clarke), Scott Fischer (the always solid Jake Gyllenhaal), Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin delivering the best performance of the film) and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes in a memorable part). Little pieces are shined on other characters such as two guides who don’t get along, Hall’s pregnant wife, the frantic crew at base camp watching helplessly as the storm gets worse and a Japanese woman who has scaled seven summits. The film simply tries to cram too many people into one movie. As a result, aside from the four main guys we follow, it feels like other characters exist simply to die or to help the main characters survive as best they can.

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EVEREST is based on a real life expedition and that story is fascinating for those who take the time to read it (whether it be in a book or simply on a Wikipedia page). As a film, there are problems in both the pacing and characters. It feels like the filmmakers tried to cram too much within the space of two hours, but also didn’t know how to keep the pace from dragging at points (this feels like two-and-a-half hours as opposed to two). There are emotional moments and I don’t regret watching this movie in the slightest, but the film can’t fully overcome its pacing and so-so characters. EVEREST is a good movie, but I’d recommend seeing it on the big screen or not seeing it at all.

Grade: B

MIAMI VICE (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language and some Sexual Content

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Directed by: Michael Mann

Written by: Michael Mann

(based on the TV series MIAMI VICE)

Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Naomie Harris, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Justin Theroux, Gong Li, Luis Tosar, John Oritz, Ciaran Hinds, John Hawkes, Tom Towles & Eddie Marsan

This is one of the most baffling projects to be conceived by a big name studio. Michael Mann, who worked on the original 80’s MIAMI VICE television series, was interested in turning his hit show into a gritty summer blockbuster with a huge budget. Though Mann had his share of stellar movies up to this point (most notably HEAT and COLLATERAL), MIAMI VICE was a misfire on pretty much every conceivable level. The final product winds up as a tinkered with and undercooked would-be actioner that almost seems like a single episode of the series was stretched for over two full hours and every bit of excitement was surgically removed.

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I am not a massive fan of the original TV show by any means, but I did watch some episodes in the last year. They’re cheesy now, but there’s a sense of fun to the silly cop-drama. This 2006 reboot follows Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, two undercover agents who get deep into their work. Though they’re both rough around the edges, the duo still manage to excel at catching bad guys. After one of their informants is compromised, Crockett and Tubbs are assigned to infiltrate a highly sophisticated drug ring. The cartel operation is a lot bigger than originally expected and the two cops find themselves confronted with a huge amount of danger, especially when Crockett begins romancing the drug lord’s girlfriend.

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From everything I’ve read, the production of MIAMI VICE was not a happy one. Apparently, the actors were difficult to work with and Michael Mann didn’t make the wisest directorial decisions (filming in questionable weather conditions and going to areas that were dangerous to his actors’ well-being). I wish I could say that this all paid off in an action-packed, intense thrill ride that’s exciting from frame one until the closing credits. However, that is not the case as MIAMI VICE seems to actively keep the viewer at a distance from the simplistic storyline and its main characters. I was never sucked into the movie the way that I should have been. The story also drags its feet with a bloated running time that’s made worse with an excess of unnecessary montages that use so-so music. It almost felt like this movie consisted of 60% music video footage.

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The story isn’t much better as it feels like Mann picked a dusty 80’s MIAMI VICE episode script off his shelf and sucked every ounce of fun from it. Jamie Foxx is okay as Tubbs, pulling the tough guy act that he has revisited in later roles (THE KINGDOM, DJANGO UNCHAINED). Colin Farrell is horribly miscast as Crockett sporting a laughable hair-style and non-convincing raspy voice. It certainly didn’t do either of these actors any favors that their characters are so bland and unlikable. A few recognizable faces pop up and are quickly forgotten. These include Eddie Marsan as an informant, Ciaran Hinds as an FBI agent with ulterior motives, and Luis Tosar as the forgettable kingpin.

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There’s a halfway decent action scene that kicks off MIAMI VICE, but the film quickly boils down to one boring moment after the next with no excitement or tension. The climactic showdown is also a half-heartedly executed (and rewritten) series of incoherent shots of people firing wildly in certain directions. The handheld, sometimes shaky, camera work doesn’t work for this film either. Mann has used this style before in better projects (e.g. COLLATERAL), but it feels very cheap this time around. It’s annoying when the camera seems to be shaking for no discernible reason, especially as it’s focused on the face of someone having a simple conversation.

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This 2006 version of MIAMI VICE might have been good if there were a sense of fun, excitement, or even a pulse to the movie. It feels like everyone was phoning it in to bank on a well-known TV series of the 80’s. That’s not exactly a novel concept, but other movies based on TV shows are far better than this lifeless flick (e.g. 21 JUMP STREET or STARSKY & HUTCH). Hell, even DUKES OF HAZZARD was slightly more accomplished. I realize that all the films mentioned were comedies, but MIAMI VICE could have benefitted from better characters, better action, and all around better writing/directing. This is especially disappointing coming from the same man who gave us HEAT and COLLATERAL. Overall, just watch three hours of the original TV show instead of this unwanted, unneeded reboot that nobody asked for (aside from Mann and Jamie Foxx).

Grade: D

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