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One would think, that in a 157 minute movie, there would be at least a little bit of time devoted to character development, especially in a film that?s only really about two people. One would also be wrong, at least in this case. Instead, Ridley Scott?s newest film spends most of its time hitting as many different points as possible, without really delving into any of them. It?s still decent, competently made, energetic and with good performances, but it is not a very interesting movie.
Denzel is Frank Lucas, a drug kingpin who rose quickly once he started importing directly from Vietnam. And quickly is the perfect way to describe how his story is presented. He?s shown in his early life as a driver to a former boss, and then each subsequent scene featuring him is a jump to another plot point and another stage in his life. We see his getting into the business, becoming a cold blooded killer, buying his mother a house, adding his brothers to the business, finding a wife, marrying a wife, getting shot at and so on and so forth. Breadth is nice, but there?s no depth here. He loves his wife because he professes to do so, but it?s never shown on screen. He?s a family man because he professes to be so, but again it?s almost glossed over. We?re shown his violent streak, in contrast to his generally very calm and controlled demeanor over and over again, so much so that it doesn?t seem out of the ordinary at all.
Oddly, a reason, or excuse at least, is given in the final moments, when he finally faces down Crowe, which is one of the better scenes in the film. In fact, half of the story is contained in the final scene and a series of written epilogues. Scott finally gives up and just does what he wanted to do the whole movie, which is simply list as many plot points as possible. Included here are major character shifts for both protagonists, stuff more interesting than the entire film.
The characters around Lucas are criminally underused. Chiwetol Ejiofor is given almost nothing to do besides stand around so Denzel can act off of him. Cuba Gooding shows up for a scene or two. Lymari Nadal is very pretty and will probably get a career out of this, but her character also is only important because of how Lucas relates to her. Many of the scenes that show the rise of Lucas?s empire are montages set to music and thus have no character moments at all. Only Josh Brolin as an extremely bent cop gets anything resembling a full portrayal. ?
He?s also the only character who moves between both stories. Russell Crowe?s Ritchie Robbins actually gets just as much screen time, but a lot less happens in his half. For one thing, a decent amount of this film is devoted to a subplot about his wife and son. It?s very unnecessary, plays out terribly as though it were a part of a Lifetime movie and, with the movie already being too long, should have been cut and maybe mentioned in passing.
Other parts of his story feel empty because often he is merely following the other story, finding out what the audience already knows about what Frank Lucas is doing. Left basically unexplored, except as a plot point, are his childhood connections to the underworld. And the interesting introduction with his character provides a few good scenes, but sets up a more interesting man than the one portrayed here. There is also a scene where he assembles his ?team,? which introduces each of the three men, but this is the only time that they are even written as three characters with personalities. The rest of the time they are just generic cops.
One final note. There is a scene, right before the climax, which sticks out like a sore thumb and is in fact the only bad scene in the film. It introduces your typical boneheaded official in a position of power, but his blocking of Robbins? actions doesn?t actually affect anything. Instead, he?s just there to spout ethnic and racial slurs and then to make some random remarks about America?s place in the world which only serve to make us wonder how this is about Iraq.