Sunday, November 4, 2007
I decided not to see American Gangster even before the tepid reviews, when I read that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe wouldn't be sharing any scenes together until the end, thereby continuing a trend in current cinema that annoys the hell out of me. If the Golden Age often paired movie stars together and affording us the pleasure of watching them butt heads for a couple hours (Bette & Joan! Bela and Boris!), many of today's movies keep their actors apart as long as possible, following the Sleepless in Seattle formula even when they're not Ephronian crap.
Excluding the Ocean's movies--which dilute the star pool by mashing a bunch of them together--the last time I can recall a film featuring two actors performing at the level of Washington and Crowe's game was Michael Mann's Heat (1995) starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro right before both started coasting on their estimable career laurels. There was a great deal of anticipation leading up to the movie's release followed by something of a letdown, with much carping aimed toward the fact that Pacino's homicide detective and DeNiro's bank robber shared only one major scene together. (More on that momentarily.) Watching Heat again the other night, I think the film holds up better now than it did then, its longuers fleshing out a whole panorama of characters and linking the two principals for the considerable amount of screen time that they're apart. I'm mixed about Mann's body of work, his style at times seeming to overcompensate for a lack of substance. But while Heat is in some ways his ultimate exploration of machismo, this is levened by the best ensemble of women he's ever had. Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd make vivid impressions as, respectively, the love interests of DeNiro and Val Kilmer's criminals, both showing the level of denial needed to stay with them (or the loyalty to let them go). And playing what could have been a stereotypical suffering wife of a cop, Diane Venona holds her own against Pacino (who gives one of his over-the-top performances, though I think mostly in character). Refusing to fade into the background, she may be the strongest onscreen partner he's ever had.
As for The Scene itself, it is no small measure of Mann's perversity that when he finally gets the legendary Godfather alumns together, about halfway into the film, it is over a cup of coffee. What's more, he shoots it over the shoulders of his actors, so that Pacino and DeNiro never actually share the same frame. (This has prompted rumors that they weren't even together on the day of the shooting, but the DVD's Special Features prove otherwise.) I would have been irked too if the sequence weren't so fascinating, with the pair subtly mimicking each other's body language, discussing bad dreams, and quietly vowing to take the other down. I'm not quite sure how, but Mann gets away with it. It's a great scene in a fine movie, weaving together the parallel paths of these two men and setting up the tragic grandeur of the climax that is to come.