American Gangster (2007)
Release Date: November 2nd, 2007 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott Actors: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Carla Gugino, John Ortiz, Cuba Gooding Jr., Armand Assante, Idris Elba, Common
rom shady cops to ruthless hoodlums, Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” thrills with the grandiose bravado only a master filmmaker can accomplish. Suspenseful and engrossing, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe deliver unbeatable performances with keen character development and a detailed screenplay. Without over-glorifying crime and even with the typical “true story” source material, “American Gangster” is one of the most entertaining films 2007 has to offer.
It is 1968 and the former Harlem kingpin has passed away, giving rise to several competing factions of criminals who fight for control of the local drug industry. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) quickly rises to the top with his goldmine idea of buying heroine from a pure source in East Asia, where crooked U.S. military personnel are able to smuggle it into the United States. But close on his heels is detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a seemingly honest cop who forms a special investigation unit to track down the ruthless mobster.
Opening with a brilliantly violent scene of Frank executing a nameless offender through the use of fire and bullets, audiences are immediately witness to the strikingly blank-faced cruelty of a villain not even remotely portrayed in the trailer (rather, he’s painted in more flattering layers of charisma). It is a preface for the ruthless nature of the criminal who becomes an unequaled success among the drug dealers and crooked police officials that pepper the streets of this Scorsese-esque, gritty crime drama. Later, it comes as no shock when Lucas burns an expensive alpaca coat given to him by his wife with nary a blink, and is soon unable to keep his family from harm – in fact, he has no qualms about involving them in the business. Sympathy for Frank is derived only because of his austere determination and arresting personality (a valuable commodity in antiheroes), not for the suffering of his mother or wife, for which he appears unable to show real emotions.
Russell Crowe’s Richie is equally atypical, especially for a leading protagonist. He is unable to control his personal life, fighting in court over the custody of his son, all the while cheating on his wife with numerous other women. And yet his professional life as a police officer is a complete contrast, as he diligently works to catch not only the bad guys, but also the treacherous insiders. Notorious for turning in $1 million in unmarked cash, he struggles against the dishonest nature of his coworkers to disquietingly uphold the law; he is, in his own way, as much of a vigilante (or working by his own personal code of right and wrong) as his colleagues are corrupt. And yet, unexpectedly, during court he realizes the hypocritical manner of his personal shortcomings versus his professional mindset – to the point that he eventually gives up his son.
Lawlessness and organized crime exist because of the mutual benefits that the gangsters have with the law. Frank states this consummately near the end, reasoning that there are simply too many employees of the drug business – no one, including the law, wants it to stop. On top of the inane amount of cops on the take (as stressed by the end credits, claiming that three quarters of the entire drug enforcement division was dishonest), Richie must deal with jurisdiction regulations that hinder his progress and the crafty facade Frank utilizes to mask any involvement with Blue Magic, the brand name he uses on his heroine.
“American Gangster” draws many parallels to the themes and designs of other archetypal gangster flicks, including “The Godfather” and “Scarface” – great pictures to borrow from if done carefully and respectfully. Frank is completely independent and unflinchingly brutal, like Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, while his criminal organization is structured similarly to the Italian gangsters of the Corleone family. The most prominent difference in their behavior is the lack of familial importance, which is most heavily stressed in “The Godfather.” Frank goes through the motions, but is distant from that association, opting instead to preserve his business, even when it means meting out criminal justice to his own family members (though this specific action is, in fact, relevant to the previous comparison). His intelligence and influential presence are only matched by Richie, who never even comes in contact with him until the exhilarating conclusion. The other standout actor worth mentioning is Josh Brolin, who turns in a memorable performance as Trupo, a sinister cop who signifies his wickedness with the simple slow-motion flicker of his sleek, black, leather trenchcoat. The ensemble of other notable players include Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Hawkes, Carla Gugino, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Idris Elba.
The likes of “American Gangster” have been seen before; its motifs and storytelling are not one-of-a-kind. But director Ridley Scott makes no errors in the production process, crafting an epic feel with all of the resources available to him – exceptional acting, a perfectly suspenseful finale, attention to details (and costuming and styling faithful to the time period), sharp scripting, and a sensational score by Marc Streitenfeld. It’s a film of such power and resonance that it can’t be easily forgotten.
– Mike Massie