American Gangster

| November 1, 2007

At 157 minutes director Ridley Scott has really created two films within his new film, American Gangster. There is the story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), and his rise from being the driver of a black godfather in Harlem and the story of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) a police detective who made his career capturing and putting away drug kingpins. It is only in the last 20 minutes of the film that the two Oscar winners share the screen, when the roads they have been traveling finally intersect and become one.
The setting for the movie is the late 1960’s through the early 1970’s. His boss has just died and Lucas is fighting to take over the drug trade in Harlem. In what would be considered a marketing coupe in most other industries, Lucas views television reports describing the drug trade in Thailand and realizes that by importing his heroin directly from the source in Southeast Asia he can sell a 100% pure product for half the price of his competitors who sell a product which is only 25-50% pure. Thankfully for him, the United States was involved in a police action in that part of the world which gives him a perfect way of transporting the drugs from “factory” to distribution point. His success attracts the attention of certain other criminal elements and his cooperative involvement with them puts the police onto the trail of Lucas.
While Lucas is establishing himself in business, Roberts is fighting a losing battle within the all of the police departments which serve the greater New York City area. Most of the police working the drug trade are either involved directly in it, or are taking bribes to protect it. When he and his partner do turn in close to a million dollars in cash from a drug bust (as opposed to stealing the money and calling it a career) those crooked cops decide they Roberts is an honest cop and therefore is not trustworthy. The same reports which are giving Lucas his marketing plan are causing the Federal government to begin the war on drugs and the outcast Roberts is tapped to go after the major players in the drug trade.
Washington’s performance is similar to but more subtle than Training Day. The rage in that other film gets put under wraps–leaking out only when he feels there is a lack of loyalty. Then we see the full power of Alonzo from that other film. Following the lead from other crime families, Lucas insulated himself by using his brothers and cousins for the key positions in his organization.
Crowe’s performance reminded me most of his Oscar nominated portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. He lets Roberts focus only on his work, with family and other distractions allowed to be important under the briefest of circumstances.
Scott is not a stranger to long, detailed films. Blackhawk Down (152 minutes), Gladiator (171 minute extended), Kingdom of Heaven (145 minutes, with a 194 minute directors cut) and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (154 minutes) all have graphic violence, tortured characters, and much photography which brings you so into the action, that you do not get a wide screen view of many important events. The same is to be said for American Gangster. It is rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality. All of it in multiple doses so leave the little ones at home. It is not a groundbreaking film. “Drug World” flicks like Blow, or Pulp Fiction, or Traffic all captured my attention more, but Gangster will not disappoint.

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