AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007). American Gangster is 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 becomes a millionaire by eliminating the middle man in the drug trade. 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.
Extras on the 2-disc Unrated Extended Edition include audio commentary by Scott and Zaillian, 18 minutes of additional footage, an alternate opening and alternate ending, a deleted scene, and over 90 minutes of making-of material.
THE BRAVE ONE (2007). It was simpler back in 1974, when it was called Death Wish. After thugs murder his wife and rape his daughter, businessman Charles Bronson hits the streets with the purpose of blowing away all human vermin. As a film, it's unpretentious, straightforward and effective as hell. The Brave One is basically a retread of Death Wish, only with a sex change for its protagonist and, given the director (The Crying Game's Neil Jordan) and star (Jodie Foster), a more distinguished pedigree. It also purports to add dramatic heft to the moral implications of the situation, with an ad line that blares, "How Many Wrongs To Make It Right?" But the movie itself clearly doesn't believe in its own promotion, resulting in a finished product that works as exploitation but fails at anything more socially relevant. Still, the very setup of the piece – radio host Erica Bain turns vigilante after street punks kill her fiancé (Naveen Andrews) – makes it impossible not to line up firmly behind her, and on that primal level, this delivers the goods. Tempering the bloodshed is the relationship that develops between Erica and a sympathetic detective; Terrence Howard is effectively low-key as the cop, just as Foster brings everything to the table for her raw performance. I just wish she would accept a different sort of part; she's rarely less than excellent, but for years now, she's settled into making movies in which she portrays a largely desexed woman who's all business and no pleasure (Panic Room, Flightplan, Inside Man, etc.). Mind you, I'm not suggesting an insipid romantic comedy opposite Bruce Willis, but I'm sure there's a happy medium to be found somewhere.
DVD extras include a 21-minute behind-the-scenes featurette and six minutes of deleted scenes.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (2007). A riveting documentary that tapers off significantly during its second hour, In the Shadow of the Moon is a timely film that instills a sense of American pride at a period in our history when the current administration has poisoned our reputation around the world and even among half of our own populace. Its focus is NASA's Apollo program that, between 1968 and 1972, sent nine rocketships to the moon. The spirit of John F. Kennedy hangs over the film, as it was his drive that largely inspired America to set its sights on outer space; one astronaut states that JFK was either a visionary, a dreamer or politically astute, before concluding that he was probably all three. Interviews with 10 Apollo astronauts provide the narrative thrust, combining with awe-inspiring shots taken from the various Apollo spacecraft as well as other little-seen NASA footage from history's archives. As expected, the bulk of the movie centers on the Apollo 11 mission manned by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins – it's a thrill to revisit the events surrounding the historic moment when Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon's surface. From there, the movie rushes through the other Apollo missions – the ill-fated Apollo 13 voyage earns some extra minutes, but not enough (presumably, the makers figured everyone's seen the Ron Howard-Tom Hanks drama Apollo 13) – and the film becomes progressively more scattershot as it tries to wrap up (comments by the astronauts about our planet's fragile environment feel like outtakes from The 11th Hour). And the decision to conclude the picture with these heroes defending the missions against ludicrous conspiracy theories claiming they were all faked here on Earth was a major misstep, akin to if Steven Spielberg had ended Schindler's List with real-life survivors having to refute morons who claim there was no Holocaust. Overall, though, this is a rousing achievement that makes us wish we could once again reach for – and touch – the stars.