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A view from the Blu (-ray) on DVDBeaver by Leonard Norwitz

 

A Little Background     Openers     

 

    Modus Operandi     The Scorecard:     

Emotive Connection      Audio     Operations    Extras     The Movie     Equipment

 

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American Gangster [Blu-ray]

 

(Ridley Scott, 2007)

 

 

 

 

 

Also available in Universal's  The Gangster Gift Set Collection on Blu-ray (Casino, Eastern Promises and American Gangster)

   

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Imagine & Scott Free

Blu-ray: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: A

Runtime: 158 or

Chapters: 20

Size: 50 GB

Case: Standard Amaray Blu-ray case

Release date: October 14, 2008

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: VC-1

 

Audio:

English 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio. Dub: Spanish & French DTS 5.1 (theatrical cut only)

 

Subtitles:

English, English SDH, Spanish & French

 

Extras:

• Theatrical & Extended Cuts

• Commentary by Director Ridley Scott & Writer Steven Zaillian

• Deleted Scenes including an Alternate Opening

• Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster (78:21)

• The BET Special: The Making of American Gangster (18:05)

• Dateline NBC: American Gangster: First Look (21:31)

• Case Files (24:56)

• Hip-Hop Infusion: Featuring Common & T.I. (5:13)

• Music Videos (3:07 + 4:23)

 

 

The Movie: 7
Whatever else we may think about this movie, the last 30 minutes are as good an excuse as any for seeing it – but on which edition, that is the question!

 



 

The movie is introduced with the familiar words: “Based on a True Story”. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian have concocted a layered picture of drug trafficking in the greater New York area in the late 1960s and 1970s. The drama centers around two men who don’t really meet until well into the story. The first is Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) who, for 15 years, has been the driver and hit man for Bumpy Johnson, the kingpin of Harlem, the man who, on the one hand, was its crime boss, and on the other, its philanthropist. In the opening scene Bumpy complains to Frank that progress has cut out the middle man, the suppliers: Where’s our cut if you go right from the manufacturer to the public? Whereupon Bumby promptly dies.

 

 

 

Lucas takes Bumpy's observation to heart and makes it the guiding principle of his rapid rise to become the most successful narcotics trafficker in our nation’s history. What he devises is a plan both simple and gutsy. Instead of dealing with local crime bosses whose cut robs him of his profit, he flies out to Thailand where he negotiates directly with major opium growers, and arranges to have American servicemen fly the stuff into the U.S., where his people (many of whom are family) cut and distribute a powder twice as pure for half the price, thereby cutting out all the middlemen and making the local mafia bosses angry as all hell.

On the other side is Det. Richie Roberts, a straight-arrow cop who walks away from a million dollars in unmarked bills and, by turning the money in as evidence, earns the undying disrespect of his fellow officers. Unable to find a partner who would work with someone with such impractical ethical standards, Roberts eventually is picked to head a special investigative unit out of New Jersey. When he comes across “Blue Magic,” Lucas’ trademark product, he is completely mystified at how and by whom such quality merchandise could possibly be marketed. His long search eventually leads him to Lucas.

Now, on to the question of the extended and theatrical cuts. In February of this year, Universal released three packagings of the movie: a 2-disc Unrated Extended cut, a 3-disc set containing both theatrical and extended versions, and an HD-DVD/Standard Def Combo containing the theatrical cut in HD and the extended cut in 480i. I'm sure this last did not make HD fans happy. Righting almost all wrongs, Universal includes both versions in the present Blu-ray edition. While they could have been even more generous with a two disc set and higher bit rates all around, this packaging is certainly sensible and generally satisfying.

This is one of those rare times where I come down mostly in favor of the extended version. Maybe, just maybe, this is because I watched that cut first and, as I did, I wondered what things would be left out in the original cut. Turns out I guessed wrong. I hoped there would be less of Detective Roberts' family troubles, since I felt they were not relevant to the story. These episodes seemed to serve only as contrast to how Lucas was involved with his family, which, in his case, couldn't be more relevant. Instead, what was left out, in part, was more background to Roberts' investigations and surveillance. The theatrical version struck me as abrupt in this respect. That cut goes into considerable detail about how Lucas obtained and distributed his dope, but its equivalency does not exist for Roberts. It still doesn't, even in the extended cut. Since this aspect of the story is better balanced in the extended version, the final half-hour is more satisfying. That leaves the ending, which is hard to take in the extended cut. Even though it harkens back to the conversation Frank has with Bumpy, I found the final few minutes inappropriately sappy. Of course I could always hit Stop on the remote at the right moment next time out.

There are a number of things that keep American Gangster grounded when it should be flying. One of these is the casting of Russell Crowe who is no more believable as a Jewish, New Jersey detective than Levi Johnston. More than that, Crowe is just too dull and uncharismatic to energize the task force required. Except for Josh Brolin's snarling Det. Trupo, the white cops in this movie just don't cut it, especially in comparison to their black counterparts on the other side of the law. 82-yearold Ruby Dee, as Frank's mother, has more energy in her left eyebrow than the whole of the special investigative unit. So, despite Lucas' murderous ways, we are not all that happy when he is eventually taken down – which is another reason why the final act works so well for me.

 


 

Image: 6/7
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

I suspect a theatrical viewing of this movie would not yield much more interesting results than this Blu-ray, which is surprisingly soft. Soft, muted, yes, but not uninvolving, possibly because the imagery is so good (as is always the case with Scott) and the performances, except as noted above, so compelling. On the other hand I thought I detected some artifacts in scenes where things moved quickly. Bit rates tend to be lowish: in the mid-teens mostly. A second disc for the alternate cut would have improved matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 7/8
A soft image, yes; but at least the audio track has some excitement going for it, especially now that we are given uncompressed audio. Dialogue is generally clear enough, but does tend to get submerged more than I'd like in crowd scenes. Crowe tends to mumble, which doesn't help things either. At times I was lost without subtitles. There is some good work for the surrounds as the celebs enter the boxing arena and in the Southeast Asia scenes where ambiance is crucial. Gunfire, what there is of it, goes down well enough, if unspectacularly. Come to think of it, American Gangster may be best understood as not so much a cops and gangsters thriller as an intimate story about family.

 

Operations: 8
First off, we are given a choice between the Theatrical or Extended Cut. Once there, we can easily navigate to the other cut from its menu, which is laid out like other Universal
Blu-rays I have seen so far. I like the arrows that tell you which way to direct you remote, and the bonus feature instructions, which are detailed and intuitive.

 

 

 

Extras: 7
As opposed to the HD-DVD, which had only the audio commentary and deleted scenes that could be found on the 2-disc DVD edition, the blu-ray brings over all the extras from the 3-disc DVD set. While the main attraction ought to be the commentary, it wasn't for me. Recorded separately, Scott has the preponderance of the track. He talks about production as if he's tired of the whole thing, and perhaps he is. The more lively Zaillian discusses how he arrived at his adaptation from what is known about the real life characters. The most interesting piece is a 78-minute documentary in five parts on the making of the movie titled "Fallen Empire." A very worthwhile piece. One final travel advisory here: Despite promos and the back of the case itself, I found no U-Control feature. Be aware that this might be a rogue copy, as Universal assures me that other copies do not suffer accordingly.

 

 

Bottom line: 7
American Gangster is neither representative of Scott's best work nor the genre, however one may describe it, but it is worth our time. The black cast is very good, especially Denzel and Ruby. Josh Brolin makes our skin crawl as the archetype cop on the take.

Leonard Norwitz
October 4th, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also available in Universal's  The Gangster Gift Set Collection on Blu-ray (Casino, Eastern Promises and American Gangster)

   

 


 

 





 

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