Ridley Scott’s vast, intricate crime epic American Gangster is one of the director’s finest achievement in film to this day. It’s sprawling in nature, expansive in scope but never chaotic or muddled. It always maintains a laser focus on its characters and story, thumping along at a rhythmic pace which swells and falls to the time of one of the most iconic stories in true crime. It’s Scott’s Heat, a titanic tale of cop vs. criminal in which neither are the villain or hero, but simply men adhering to rigid, ruthless principles moulded by the environments they have grown up in. Both men have an intense set of morals completely different from the other, yet equally as captivating. Russell Crowe is a troubled bruiser as Detective Richie Roberts, a cop so determined to convince himself of his own upstanding nature that he won’t take any illicit payoff in any amount or context. In contrast, every other aspect of his life is a shambling mess. Denzel Washington is quiet fury as Frank Lucas, an enterprising gangster and drug smuggler who rides the tidal wave of capitalism like there’s no tomorrow, flooding the streets of Harlem with pure heroin directly from the southeast Asian source, and rising swiftly to the peak of underworld infamy. The two are on an inevitable collision course, two juggernauts with different empires backing them who will stop at nothing. Lucas believes himself to be untouchable, shirking the flashy, preening nature of his peers and remaining out of the limelight, until cunning Roberts catches onto him. The rough and tumble world of New York in the 60’s and 70’s is lovingly brought to life by Scott, his cast and crew who go to impressive lengths in order to bring us that grit, realism and specific anthropological aura of another time, another setting. Speaking of cast, this has to be one of the most rip roaring collection of actors ever assembled, even to rival that of Heat itself. In Richie’s corner there is senior Detective Lou Toback (a sly Ted Levine, perpetuating the vague Michael Mann vibe even further), a scummy colleague (Yul Vasquez), and an off the books team of gangbusters including John Ortiz, John Hawkes and a mumbling RZA. He also clashes with his bitter ex wife (Carla Gugino) in an ugly custody battle for their young son. Over on Frank’s side of the hill are his huge extended family including Common, TI, Chiwetel Ejfor and Ruby Dee in one of the film’s finest performances as his strong willed, passionate mother, one of the only people who could talk sense into him and keep the animal inside at bay. Lymari Nadal is great as his bombshell Puerto Rican wife as well. His rivals include superfly-esque Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and a brief, hostile turn from Idris Elba. He also deals with the Italian mafia, personified by a hammy Armand Assante, an earnest Jon Polito and a slimy Ritchie Coster. One of the best performances of the film comes from Josh Brolin as positively evil corrupt narcotics detective Trupo, threatening everything that moves with his grease slick hair, porno moustache and silky, dangerous tone. As if that army of talent wasn’t enough, there’s also work from Kevin Corrigan, Joe Morton, Clarence Williams III in a powerful turn as an ageing Bumpy Johnson, and a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Norman Reedus as well. What. A. Cast. The whole thing rests on Crowe and Washington, though, and both are like Olympian titans of crime and conflict, sweeping up everyone around them in a whirlwind of explosive violence, shifting alliances and the booming arrival of capitalism giving the American people in every walk of life a defibrillator jolt of economic change, laying the foundation for the world we live in today, one brick, one bullet, one business deal at a time. Scott achieves legendary heights with this one, a crime film for the ages that one can always revisit to see not how one hero cop took down a villainous drug lord, but how the forces which inexorably bind humans to various fates in accordance with their decisions swept up two extraordinary yet mortal men into historic infamy. In a word: Epic.
John Hillcoat’s Triple 9. Bloody. Nasty. Blistering. Nihilistic. And surprisingly deft in its presentation of character. The only clear cut, out and out protagonist is Casey Affleck’s Marcus Allen, a young detective with a wife and kid, brutally unaware that he’s been targeted by a group of stunningly dirty cops and a few ex special forces hardcases to bite the dust in a planned homicide, sparking an ‘officer down’ over the airwaves to distract the force from what’s really going down. With the exception of his straight arrow heroics, the entire rest of the cast is a snake pit of depraved, slimy, reprehensible degenerates, populating a decayed, gang infested Atlanta where the cops are just as likely to empty a clip into your skull as the cholos. Chiwetel Efjor plays Atwood, leader of a most unfortunate crew of misfits who are forced to perform near suicidal heists for tyrannical Israeli-Russian mafia bitch Irena (a bleach blond, terrifying Kate Winslet). Their newest venture is so impossible that they’re attempting to use a slain officer as a ditch effort to get their stake. Of course it all goes to high hell, as we’ve come to expect and love in these type of films, with bullets, profanity, self destructive behaviour and wanton violence languishing all over the screen in glorious excess. Efjor is crackling good, showing brief glimpses of humanity in a dude who has lost his soul down a deep dark well, a caged animal fighting tooth and nail to no avail. The rest of his crew spend the film savagely trying to out – sleaze each other, and I mean that in the best way possible. They are really a bunch of snot rags, and this is a group of outstanding actors having bushels of fun being irredeemable bad boys. Anthony Mackie is walking C-4 as Efjor’s right hand, a guy rotten to the marrow with moral conflict. Norman Reedus leaks grease as an ex special ops prick and their getaway driver. I didn’t think Aaron Paul could be anymore despicable than in breaking bad, but somehow manages it here, playing a dude so grungy you’ll squirm. It’s Clifton Collins Jr. who scores the points though. He hasn’t had a great role in years and he comes out blazing as the icy sociopath of the group. Then there’s Woody Harrelson. Oh, Woody. He’s clearly having a ball as Affleck’s stoner uncle and high ranking cop. He spends the entire film ripped off his gourd on joint after joint, and take it from me, he knows how to play stoned impeccably. Despite the laconic bumbling, he shows that fire and ferocity we’ve come to know from him in brief unmistakable flashes, especially where it matters. Throw in Teresa Palmer as Affleck’s loving wife and Gal Gadot in full slut mode and you’ve got a cast for the time capsule. Hillcoat wastes not a second in propelling his narrative forward with the force of a bulldozer, giving us minute moments of respite amongst the surging monsoon of bloodshed and dirty deeds. Composer Atticus Ross whips up a foreboding, hair raising war cry of a score that kicks in from the first frame and doesn’t quit till the last shell casing has hit the ground. The only misstep the film makes is killing off its best actor way too early on, vut its not enough to be an actual concern or hurt it overall. If sickeningly satisfying ballets of blood, broken limbs and morally bankrupt people engaging in all kinds of giddily fun criminal activities are your thing, this is a great way to kick off the year, cinematically speaking. Hell even if it’s not your thing go check it out. It’ll shake your shit up and then some.