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

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Violence, Strong Sexuality, Language and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: RZA

Written by: RZA & Eli Roth

Starring: RZA, Rick Yune, Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, David Bautista, Jamie Chung, Cung Le & Byron Mann

MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is a movie that piqued my interest upon release, but I never took the plunge of going out to see it in the theater. That decision was probably for the best as I simply can’t imagine what a boring and agonizing an experience it would have been to stare at the big screen, fully knowing that I had just wasted 10 bucks and driven to a venue to watch 96 minutes of cinematic crap. RZA and Eli Roth were clearly trying to translate their love for stylish and ridiculous kung-fu epics into the ultimate homage film. The end result is MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS and it feels like a bad wannabe Grindhouse throwback.

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In the nineteenth century Chinese village of Jungle Village (creative name), a nameless blacksmith forges weapons for the various clans intent on killing each other. He might have to create more than a few new weapons as news hits of a valuable gold stash being transported through his town. This moving treasure on the horizon leads to various clans fighting over who will steal the gold as well as a couple of dangerous folks intent on protecting the treasure and plenty of murderous plots afoot. The unnamed blacksmith finds himself siding with a violent British emissary to fight violent scoundrels, protect the gold and ultimately, his village.

Film Title: The Man With the Iron Fists

The biggest problem with MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is definitely the writing. This film is all over the place and never once seems to gain any solid footing. There are goofy attempts at humor, over-the-top characters, and a plot that weaves through too many sub-plots without giving us a single reason to care about any of them. It almost feels as if the story is making itself up as it goes along. The fight scenes are far too brief for the viewer to care either. There are no show-stopping stunts or memorable set pieces (save for one thanks to Russell Crowe). Instead, brief CGI-addled quick bits replace actual fight scenes and don’t necessarily do anything remotely fresh, original or exciting. I mean, you have a baddie who can turn his body into brass and he really doesn’t use that insane power to much effect.

Film Title: The Man With the Iron Fists

RZA’s performance is horrible. Seeing as he pulled triple duty (directing, writing and starring) in this film, this was clearly his passion project. I just wish he hadn’t thrown himself into the title role. Though he serves as the would-be main protagonist, there are too many other characters and convoluted plot points to really care about his bland blacksmith with a convenient supernatural power. To make matters even worse, RZA provides a voice-over narration in a lifeless tone and wooden delivery. Still, there are a couple of brief redeeming qualities in MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. Russell Crowe’s character is pretty damned cool, sporting the only memorable scene in the entire movie by sawing a guy in half in the first 10 minutes. A couple of jokes hit their marks, such as reactions from certain crowd members to the gory chaos around them. Apparently, this film was originally four hours long. Though I can’t imagine a longer version would fare much better (it might actually be far worse), this final cut of IRON FISTS definitely feels like a cut-and-paste job.

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As cool as a couple of shots are and as unapologetically badass as the marketing was, MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS is a very lame movie. It feels like there are way too many characters, plot threads and ideas stuffed into one film. These problems leave little room for any character development or lengthy fight scenes as well as the hope of this flick getting any solid footing in terms of story-telling. I couldn’t care less about RZA’s blacksmith or his iron weapons of choice. The whole film feels unbelievably forced from its faux retro opening credits to the many plot points that are obvious references to kung fu films of the past. MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS looked too good to be true and rang completely false.

Grade: D

DERAILED (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violence, Language and some Sexuality

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Directed by: Mikael Hafstrom

Written by: Stuart Beattie

(based on the novel DERAILED by James Siegel)

Starring: Clive Owen, Jennifer Aniston, Vincent Cassel, Melissa George, Addison Timlin, RZA, Tom Conti & Xzibit

DERAILED, based on James Siegel’s novel of the same name, is a typical thriller. You’ve probably seen enough similar films to establish a good idea of where things are heading before the movie reaches its halfway point. This being said, it’s truly amazing how some quality actors and a couple of decent twists can make standard material into something far more enjoyable than it should be. DERAILED is more of a guilty pleasure than a solid piece of cinema or quality thriller, but I mean this in a way of back-handed praise. I had a fun watching this in the only way that a cinephile can enjoy a relatively well-executed B-flick.

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Charles Schine is a loving husband, caring father and troubled businessman. Through the simple mistake of missing his usual train, Charles meets a good Samaritan named Lucinda. Despite both of them being married and parents, Charles and Lucinda decide to go against their better judgment and have a fling that becomes an affair. Before the two can go through on the actual affair portion of their fling, a violent stranger breaks into their hotel room with a gun. After beating the crap out of Charles and raping Lucinda, this thug, LaRoche, decides to blackmail both of the potentially unfaithful spouses for all that they’re worth. With stakes increasing and danger taking its toll, Charles must resort to drastic measures in order to protect his family and Lucinda.

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I respect that a significant amount of time was set aside to develop Charles as a likable character who makes a costly mistake. Clive Owen was a great choice for the role and shows a side that we rarely see from him. I usually picture Owen as a badass or tough guy, but his DERAILED character is a bit of a wuss and emotional wreck. He gets the crap kicked out of him on multiple occasions, which makes the shift in his overall shift in attitude that much more satisfying later on. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jennifer Aniston was embarrassingly miscast as Lucinda. She isn’t given a whole lot to do other than be a cowering, scared damsel in distress, but Aniston doesn’t exactly show a range of emotions to be a compelling character. This is made up for in the villain of the piece. Vincent Cassel seems to be having a blast playing LaRoche, injecting a cruel playfulness in his evil that makes him a lot of fun to watch. As LaRoche’s side thug, Xzibit shows up with a perma-scowl and his performance is enjoyable as well. Cassel and Xzibit chew the scenery together like it’s going out of style.

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The story in DERAILED is overly familiar, but key moments are effective. One suspenseful sequence in which Clive Owen is stuck in a very comprising situation, all while a cop patrols nearby, milks every bit of tension that it can out of this threatening scenario. A couple of the smaller twists did actually surprise me. However, there are arguably a few too many surprises and the final few become increasingly far-fetched. A big plot revelation that happens close to the final third is also way too predictable. So much so that I had correctly guessed the outcome of this show-stopping plot twist in the initial plot set-up. It’s not that big of a shock, especially when certain comedies have made fun of this clichéd twist plenty of times (e.g. IN BRUGES and FANBOYS).

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This all being said, there’s silly fun to be had in DERAILED. The main plot is definitely too predictable for its own good and Jennifer Aniston was miscast. Neither of these problems derail the movie (pun fully intended). There are a solid moments and a couple of twists did catch me off guard, even if they do get pretty preposterous by the conclusion. Clive Owen shows a softer side that I’ve never really seen in his acting, while Vincent Cassel dominates the film as the snarky villain. DERAILED comes recommended as a guilty pleasure thriller. It’s suspenseful fun, but just remember to turn off your brain before watching.

Grade: C+

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