American Gangster appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The movie came with a somewhat up and down transfer.
Sharpness was one of those erratic elements. Though most of the image seemed pretty concise and well-defined, moderate bouts of softness occasionally affected matters. Some of this came from the noticeable edge haloes that marred some shots, especially the wider ones. Definition was usually fine but lacked consistency. No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and source defects consisted of nothing more than a handful of specks.
In terms of colors, Gangster went with a low-key, earthy palette. The tones tended toward tans and browns, and the transfer executed them in a satisfying manner. Blacks were also dark and firm, while shadows appeared clear and well-developed. Really, without the softness and the occasional print flaws, I would’ve liked this image a lot, but those faults made it a “B-“ presentation.
Though not the most ambitious mix, I thought the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of American Gangster served the film well. The soundfield opened up just enough to satisfy. The handful of livelier scenes gave the audio the most information with which to work. For instance, those with gunfire or at airports created a strong sense of environment. Otherwise the movie tended to stay with general atmosphere, elements that helped place us in the story. Add good stereo imaging from the music and the soundfield was perfectly acceptable.
Audio quality was very good. Speech sounded concise and distinctive, with no edginess or other issues. Music seemed full and dynamic, and effects fell into the same realm. Those elements showed nice accuracy and richness, as the track boasted clear highs and tight lows. While the audio never dazzled, it did enough to earn a “B+”.
A number of extras appear on this two-DVD set. On Disc One, we find an audio commentary with director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian. Both offer separate tracks for this edited piece. (Note that the commentary only accompanies the theatrical cut of the movie; it’s not available with the extended version.) They discuss period details and research, script and story topics, factual information behind the tale, editing and sequencing, cast and performances, sets and locations, camera issues, music, and a mix of other production subjects.
Across the board, this commentary proves to be interesting and informative. It occasionally goes a little off-topic – such as when Scott offers an odd discourse about safe ways to use heroin! – but most of the time we find nice details. The track encompasses a good mix of subjects and consistently succeeds.
Over on DVD Two, we start with a collection of two Deleted Scenes. We find an “Alternate Opening” (1:02) and “Frank and Eva’s Wedding” (2:43). The first launches things with a bang; it shows Frank as he fires right into the camera. This bit survives in the final cut but shows up as a post-credits coda. It’s better there, as it would add nothing to the beginning of the flick.
As for “Wedding”, it displays exactly what it describes. We see the actual ceremony with Frank and Eva, whereas the final flick just gives us their departure from the church. It was a good omission as it would add virtually nothing to the film.
Next comes a documentary called Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster. In this one-hour, 18-minute and 16-second piece, we get the standard mix of movie clips, behind the scenes elements, and interviews. We hear from Scott, the real-life Richie Roberts, Frank Lucas and Dickie Lucas, producer Brian Grazer, executive producers Branko Lustig and Nicholas Pileggi, costume designer Janty Yates, extras casting Billy Dowd, production designer Arthur Max, VFX supervisor Wesley Sewell, Inflatable Crowd Co. owner Joe Biggins, music supervisor Kathy Nelson, music producer Hank Shocklee, singer Anthony Hamilton, editor Pietro Scalia, composer Marc Streitenfeld, and actors Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Chiwetel Ojiofor, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Roger Guenveur Smith, Jerrod Paige, and Bobby Jones. “Empire” looks at the true story and characters behind the film, costumes and recreating period details, the development of the project and what drew many of its major players to it, locations and production design, shooting the Ali-Frazier fight, sound, music and editing.
Like many “making of” programs these days, “Empire” offers more a collection of semi-connected featurettes than a true documentary. That means the sequences don’t flow together particularly well. Nonetheless, they offer plenty of good information and consistently satisfy. It’s especially good to hear from the real folks depicted in the flick, and the look at the fight is also particularly interesting. All the components work in this nice compilation.
Under Case Files, three featurettes appear. We find “Script Meeting” (8:13), “Heroin Test Show and Tell” (8:57) and “Setting Up the Takedown” (7:45). These provide “fly on the wall” glimpses of various events. “Meeting” shows a chat among Scott, Roberts and Zaillian as they parse out some scenes, while “Test” looks at the specifics of that aspect of the film. Finally, “Takedown” gives us the prep work for the movie’s law-enforcement climax.
I always enjoy this kind of behind the scenes materials, and each of these segments allows us a nice glimpse of some movie-making details. This is the kind of seemingly minor stuff that often fails to appear in “bigger picture” documentaries, so it’s fun to watch the filmmakers work out so many specifics.
If you want a mind-blowing expansion on its genre, American Gangster won’t impress you. The movie succeeds as something professional and engaging, but it’s not anything innovative or particularly creative. And that’s fine with me, as the flick is more than interesting enough to satisfy. The DVD comes with very nice audio and extras, but picture quality is a little lackluster. Nonetheless, this is a good movie and one I recommend.