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New releases: American Gangster, Reservation Road

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American Gangster

***

Ever since 1990's one-two punch of GoodFellas and Miller's Crossing, it's been mostly downhill for the mob movie, and even acclaimed efforts like Donnie Brasco and The Godfather Part III couldn't light my fire (and, despite the insistence of friends over the years, I have yet to be stirred enough to tackle six seasons of The Sopranos). And make no mistake: What's offered in American Gangster isn't particularly fresh, as it's yet one more tale about a confident crime figure who rises to the top before taking that inevitable plunge down the elevator shaft. Yet for all its familiar trappings, director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian invest their tale with plenty of verve, even if they frequently soft-pedal the deeds of their real-life protagonist. Denzel Washington, perhaps our most charismatic actor, has been charged with bringing Frank Lucas to the screen, and, as expected, he turns the Harlem kingpin into a magnetic menace, a self-starter who, after serving as an apprentice to bigwig Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) throughout the 1960s, becomes a millionaire by eliminating the middle man in the drug trade, thereby infuriating the Italians who are used to being at the apex of this particular food chain. American Gangster could easily have been called American Capitalist or American Dreamcatcher -- it's a Horatio Alger tale shot up with heroin -- but perhaps sensing that Lucas' fine qualities might likely overshadow the fact that he's selling death to his own people (only one sequence hammers home the horrors brought about by Lucas' exploits), Scott and Zaillian offer up a standard movie hero in Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the honest cop tasked with busting open the New York/Jersey drug racket. Roberts could have come across as a cardboard saint, but thanks to Crowe's deft underplaying, he's an interesting figure and strikes a nice counterbalance to the more dynamic Frank Lucas. American Gangster is long but not overlong -- its 160 minutes are well spent -- and while it never achieves the epic grandeur of, say, The Godfather (for one thing, the real-life denouement prohibits any Scarface-style theatrics), it manages to pump a measure of respect back into a genre that thrives on it.

Reservation Road **

Is there anything more depressing than the senseless death of a child? In the real world, perhaps not; in Reservation Road, plenty. For starters, it’s depressing to note that director Terry George elected to follow his powerful Hotel Rwanda with this simple-minded melodrama. It’s also depressing to note that this film largely wastes the talents of not one but two Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino. And finally, it’s depressing when a strong premise is compromised by lazy plotting and cop-out resolutions. Based on John Burnham Schwartz’s novel (with Schwartz co-writing the screenplay with George), Reservation Road starts with a young boy being struck and killed by an SUV. The driver is the distracted but decent Dwight Arno (Mark Ruffalo), who panics after accidentally hitting the lad and flees from the scene. The victim’s dad is Ethan Learner (Joaquin Phoenix), who witnesses the tragedy firsthand but doesn’t get a good look at the driver. Dwight struggles with his overwhelming guilt while Dwight tries to console his grieving wife (Connelly) and their other child (Elle Fanning) -- so far, so moving. But buying into the notion that every city outside of LA and NYC is the size of Mayberry, Reservation Road then takes a wrong turn by having Dwight’s ex-wife (Sorvino) coincidentally be the music instructor present at the boy’s funeral -- and then grows even more absurd when Ethan turns to a law firm for help and gets assigned -- God help the storytellers -- Dwight as his counsel. It’s all downhill from here, as Ethan turns vigilante (when he sets off to purchase a gun, we half-expect him to bump into Jodie Foster on the way out) in order for the film to end as predictably as we feared it might.

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