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American Gangster  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 02 November 2007

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“American Gangster” is a near-epic tale of real-life Harlem criminal big shot Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who essentially re-invented drug trafficking in the 1970s before he was finally sent to prison. (He’s out now.) His opponent was a smart, single-minded cop, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), whose honesty made him a pariah among other cops, but also gave him the driving power to take down Lucas.

The movie opens with a shock: handsome, charming, likeable Denzel Washington douses a bound man in gasoline, then sets him afire. It’s a vivid demonstration that Washington is very, very far from the good guy he usually plays. After the credits, we see that Frank, from North Carolina, worked as the trusted driver for Harlem gang boss Bumpy Anderson (Clarence Williams III, powerful though unbilled), who dies in Frank’s arms. He pretty much slides into Bumpy’s slot, though he’s confronted by flashy gangster Tango (Idris Elba), who despite Lucas’ protests, demands 20% of his profits from crime.

We also meet intense Richie Roberts as he breaks into the car of a major bookie—and finds almost a million dollars in untraceable money. His partner, secretly an addict, tries to convince Roberts to just keep the money—if nothing else, turning it in will infuriate other cops. (At the end, we learn that 75% of the area drug enforcement cops were on the take.) But Richie’s code of honesty has a powerful grip, and he does turn in the money, and does provoke sneers and contempt from other cops. Meanwhile, he’s studying for the New Jersey bar, and battling his ex-wife (Carla Cugino) for visitation rights regarding their son. (She wants to get the boy out of all this corruption and take him someplace more decent—Las Vegas.)

Lucas is a very intelligent man; he knows he’ll have problems from Tango and other gangsters, he knows that getting a supply of heroin and other drugs is a very expensive proposition—so he cuts out the middleman. Though the Vietnam war is still raging, he flies to seething Bangkok and seeks out the local tyrants who manufacture the drugs, and makes a deal directly with them. Through a cousin in the Army, he arranges for the drugs to be ferried to him on American military planes, by servicemen on active duty.

FBI agent Lou Toback (Ted Levine with a rug but no mustache) recruits Roberts to head up a special duty task force consisting of agents as intensely honest as he is. His new partner is wiry Freddie Spearman (John Hawkes of “Deadwood”), and he recruits a tough, somewhat skeptical group.

The script by Steven Zaillian (from the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson) compares and contrasts Lucas and Roberts, who don’t meet until nearly the end. Roberts is emotionally dishonest, which is one reason he has so many problems with his ex-wife, but he’s rigorously honest in his work, and is overly devoted to it. Lucas is emotionally honest; when he gets rich, he gives his mother (Ruby Dee) a mansion on a hill, and ends up married to Miss Puerto Rico, Eva (Lymari Nadal). Then he imports a small army of brothers and cousins to work for him in the drug trade. While having lunch on a sunny day, he shows them he means business. He walks up to Tango, strutting down a Harlem street, who demands his 20%; when Lucas draws down on him with an automatic, Tango sneers that Lucas wouldn’t dare shoot him on this crowded sunlit street—but that’s what Frank does, then returns to his awestruck relatives. He’s now The Man.

Now that he’s getting extremely pure heroin at a low price, he begins selling better stuff for less money, marketing it as “Blue Magic.” The money flows like water. The Italian mob watches Frank’s activities, mostly from a distance, though don Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) invites him out to his mansion for a little skeet shooting, and to try to make him an offer that he’ll at least find hard to refuse—but Frank refuses.

He confronts Harlem rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr., in only a couple of scenes), warning him to stop buying his stuff, cutting it, then selling it as Blue Magic. Barnes is stunned—Lucas is getting after him for copyright infringement? Yes, he is. And yes, it leads to problems.

One of Frank’s rules for his brothers, which he clearly spells out, is to not be flashy, not to stand out; he always dresses conservatively himself. He makes an exception, for Eva, when he attends the Ali-Frasier fight dressed in a flamboyant chinchilla coat. Roberts and his men are in the huge audience, taking notes, like the fact that Joe Louis speaks to Frank, that Frank—whom they’ve never noticed before—sits closer in a choicer seat than Cattano, who’s somewhat deferential to him. Realizing his error, Frank later burns the coat, but the damage has been done.

He’s now in Roberts’ cross-hairs. Richie and his crew begin investigating Lucas and his men; Richie’s now sure that this low-key, wealthy but ordinary-seeming man is the key drug figure in Harlem. But he can’t convince the higher-ups, who cling to their certainty that the Italian mob still dominates—that a Negro just couldn’t be smart enough to get ahead of the Mafia.

The long movie slips effortlessly back and forth from Roberts to Lucas and back again, as their lives draw closer and closer to intersecting. Director Ridley Scott doesn’t let us forget that as charming and likeable as he is, Frank Lucas is a brutal mobster. After one of the movie’s several Norman Rockwell-like Thanksgiving scenes, there’s an intense montage of the hideous damage that heroin brings to its users—who are buying Lucas’ Blue Magic, dying, being killed, harming others, on the same Thanksgiving Day that Lucas is celebrating with his family.

To its credit, when Lucas and Roberts finally do meet (after Lucas’ arrest), the movie becomes more interesting, not less, because these two men are at once so much alike and so different. This isn’t the first time they have worked together—they were opponents in the little-remembered “Virtuosity” (1995)—but it’s the best time. Both are crafty underplayers, neither dominating their scenes by strength of performance, nor allowing actors (including each other) to seize the moment over them. But it’s not combat—it’s a smoothly meshing entertainment scene; their scenes together are intense, exciting in a subdued way, and even funny. It’s among the few times when Washington allows Frank Lucas to show real rage.

This is, what, the third movie that Russell Crowe has made with Ridley Scott? “Gladiator,” of course, is memorable—but last year’s romantic comedy, “A Good Year,” wasn’t. They’re working together now on a fourth film together, while Washington is making his third or fourth film with Tony Scott, Ridley’s director brother. These guys must have developed effective ways of working together—and in the case of Ridley and Russell, it really shows.

Ridley Scott’s at his best with intense, focused but large-scale, even fantastic material, like “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator.” “American Gangster” is a bit out of his comfort area, which may be why it’s never quite as gripping as was clearly intended. For one thing, it’s shackled to (something resembling) the truth, it has to cover a span of several years, and there’s a very large cast. The movie is really about Frank Lucas establishing his power base, Richie Roberts tracking it down, then the two confronting one another. (Be sure to wait for all the on screen text at the end of the movie; they reveal a fact so astounding it’s surprising that it wasn’t the basis for the movie.)

“American Gangster” isn’t as grandly, dramatically operatic as “The Godfather” (what is?), it’s not as swift and clever as “GoodFellas,” it’s not as twisted and entertaining as “The Departed,” but it’s still up in the high ranks of near-great American movies about American crime. It gives us two of the most magnetic movie stars of the day in colorful roles, and tells a surprising story about drug use—Frank’s new methods changed drug dealing and use in the United States, vastly increasing the number of addicts and the number of people imprisoned for drug activities. Historically alone, the movie is valuable, but it’s also one of the best movies of 2007.
Studio Universal
Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Hawkes, RZA, Rubby Dee, Carla Gugino, Armand Assante, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Director Ridley Scott
MPAA Rating R
Running Time 157 mins.







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