American Dream

★★★

“American Dream” (now available on digital, DVD and on demand) is a rote crime drama that very much has the feeling of been there, done that. Much of it’s made artfully; some of it clumsily. My main interest in the film stemmed from it being directed by Steven Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. “American Dream” is not Kaminski’s first film (that’d be the much-maligned 2000 Winona Ryder horror vehicle “Lost Souls”) nor does it feel like it.

Nicky (Michiel Huisman, the second Daario Naharis on “Game of Thrones”) and Scott (Luke Bracey AKA Johnny Utah 2.0) are lifelong friends and business partners. They have all their assets tied up in the construction of a Los Angeles-based apartment complex and their funds are quickly dwindling. Loans are sought from numerous financial institutions, but the men are coming up emptyhanded. Desperate, they turn to Yuri (Nick Stahl), an acquaintance of Scott’s and a member of the Russian mob.

After accepting Yuri’s money a windfall comes via Scott’s Dad, Dimitri (Ed Metzger), who puts his carpet store up as collateral. Nicky and Scott subsequently refuse Yuri’s loan, but he’s unwilling to take no for an answer. Yuri and his goon Sergei (Gregory Lee Kenyon, coming across like a Russian Danny Trejo) demand payment for Yuri’s services with incurred interest for every day it’s not paid. Circumstances escalate from here with Yuri demanding the apartment complex itself and a substantial piece of the carpet store. Yuri and Sergei threaten Nicky and Scott’s lives and go so far as to antagonize and assault their girlfriends Ana and Brooke (Agnieszka Grochowska and Samantha Ressler, respectively). Luckily for Nicky and Scott, Ana has more stones than the both of ‘em combined.

Huisman and Bracey do well enough with their underwritten roles. Nicky’s the responsible one; Scott’s more impetuous. Scott’s supposed to be the brains of the operation, but Bracey doesn’t read super-smart … maybe he’s just too damned pretty? Stahl’s the main attraction here. His Yuri is evil incarnate, but Stahl and screenwriters Duncan Brantley and Mark Wheaton imbue him with enough grace notes (mostly via a daughter character) that he’s minimally sympathetic. Anyone who’s seen “Bully” or “Sin City” knows Stahl gives boffo bastard … yellow or otherwise. It’s nice to see him continue on the comeback trail after last month’s haunting “Hunter Hunter.” It’s also fun to have Elya Baskin (Mr. Ditkovich from Sam Raimi’s second and third “Spider-Man” installments) on hand as Nicky’s father/the personification of Russian vodka stereotypes.

There’s a decent amount of ickiness at play in “American Dream.” Ana’s sexually assaulted and thrown from a moving train at the beginning of the film to firm up her tough girl bonafides. She can’t just have brass on her own? There’s an exploitative sex scene between Huisman and Grochowska that’s graphic but not so graphic that you can decipher whether they’re simulating anal or doggy-style sex. Yuri is seen receiving fellatio from a transvestite. It’s almost like the filmmakers are saying, “Not only is this guy a dick, he’s also a homo! Gross!!!” When the film delves into brutality it’s fairly unflinching – bludgeonings and dismemberment are the norm.

“American Dream” is lean (83 minutes on an estimated $500,000 budget) and mean (see the previous paragraph). There’s enough good here that I’d give the picture a lukewarm recommendation. It’s impressive what Kaminski and his crew have done with limited resources. Weird edits, fluctuating film speed and lingering on random objects like it’s a European art film ultimately doesn’t elevate the material. Having better … or at least more original material … would elevate the material. Yogi Berra out!   

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