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American History X

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In a rare but successful instance of anti-hype hype, British director Tony Kaye's rants against his feature debut American History X made it one of the year's hotly anticipated films. Hype or no hype—or, for that matter, good movie or no good movie—it's impossible to deny the power of Edward Norton's portrayal of a young skinhead leader going through a moral metamorphosis. Norton gives his pumped-up and tattooed punk an insidious intelligence, a glimmer in his eye that ultimately comes across as more dangerous than his violent outbursts. Both as a militant neo-Nazi and as a reformed post-prison repentant (the film switches between black-and-white flashbacks and contemporary scenes in color), Norton again proves himself to be an exceptionally talented young actor. Where the movie falters, though, is in its tedious moralizing, cartoonish bogeymen, and ultimately naïve take on race relations in America today. Norton, in prison for the murder of two black men, is released on the condition that he stop his younger brother (Edward Furlong) from following in his footsteps. Meanwhile, Furlong must write a report on Norton for one of his high-school classes. If this sounds like an after-school-special set-up, that's because it is. Scenes of racist polemic and posturing aside, American History X somewhat safely sticks to the usual Hollywood story in which a bad guy discovers the error of his ways. Whether this has something to do with why Kaye wanted his name removed from the movie may never be known, but it's clear that some sort of behind-the-scenes power play was involved. Furlong's voiceover narration is a red flag all but announcing post-production polish, and several scenes consist of little more than Norton looking like a badass. Until this film, Kaye had mostly directed tire commercials and the like, and there is a fragmented quality to American History X, as if he viewed the project as a series of connected shorts, all with their own style, rather than as a cohesive whole. There may be much to like about his movie, but it's all been done before to more challenging degrees of moral ambiguity. That's a pretty fatal flaw.