Director : Ridley Scott
Screenplay : Steve Zaillian (based on the story “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Denzel Washington (Frank Lucas), Russell Crowe (Richie Roberts), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Huey Lucas), Josh Brolin (Detective Trupo), Lymari Nadal (Eva), Ted Levine (Lou Toback), Roger Guenveur Smith (Nate), John Hawkes (Freddie Spearman), RZA (Moses Jones), Yul Vazquez (Alphonse Abruzzo), Malcolm Goodwin (Jimmy Zee), Ruby Dee (Mama Lucas)
American Gangster has had one of those insanely tortured production histories that makes you wonder if, at the end of the day, it was all worth it. The real-life story of 1970s Harlem crime king Frank Lucas, the film was set to roll several years ago under the direction of Antoine Fuqua, who directed star Denzel Washington to an Oscar in Training Day (2001). The plug was pulled at the last minute when Universal Pictures balked at the $100 million budget. Ironically enough, when director Ridley Scott took over the production and his favorite actor Russell Crowe was brought on board to play the investigating officer originally slated for Benicio Del Toro, the budget still came in around the $100 million range. But, then again, Martin Scorsese's organized crime thriller The Departed had recently won a slew of Oscars and hit the jackpot at the box office, so maybe it didn't seem like such a risk after all.
The resulting film is an intriguing crime saga that is long on atmosphere and short on momentum. It is never boring, but it's never entirely gripping either. Steven Zaillian's screenplay is derived from a long story published in New York Magazine about Frank Lucas, who rose to the top of the Big Apple's heap of organized crime by distributing a new form of heroin dubbed “Blue Magic” that was cheaper and more potent than what others were peddling. Lucas was an opportunist and a businessman who realized that he could cut out the middleman and supply the dope himself, thus allowing him to sell it for less and still make mountains of money. His greatest feat and sickest accomplishment was the means by which he would get the drugs from his supplier in Southeast Asia to the mean streets of New York: by hiding them in the coffins of dead American soldiers returning from Vietnam.
The film alternates between Lucas's rise to power in Harlem starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s and his dogged pursuit by Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an intrepid New Jersey special investigator who is not only the lone person who thinks that Lucas is a crime lord (the other cops are blinded by his race, sure that a black man couldn't rise to such prominence over the Italian mafia), but also the only one willing to go after him and the web of corruption within which he operates. While the title of American Gangster would seem to suggest that the focus is on Lucas's crimes, it is actually much more engaging and infuriating in its depictions of the levels of corruption within the New York police department, especially its narcotics division. Led by an oily crook named Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), the cops in the film are so decidedly corrupt that they don't even try to hide it. Rather, they cruise around in expensive cars and designer suits, shaking down anyone and everyone in broad daylight and generally looking like a gang of thugs. Roberts' real accomplishment is less the takedown of one individual gangster than it is the (albeit temporary) dismantling of a rotten system.
Much of American Gangster's lengthy running time is given over to character development, as we are meant to see Lucas and Roberts as ironic counterpoints to each other. While Lucas is a vicious crime lord who makes millions off drug addiction (Scott drives this home with a brief montage showing junkies shooting up between their toes), he is also a dedicated family man who uses his money to buy his loving mother (Ruby Dee) a huge house and ensure that his three brothers are all involved in the “family business.” In many ways he is the very opposite of the classic gangster of movie lore; rather than being flamboyant and borderline psychotic, he is reserved and thoughtful, particularly in the way he realizes that drawing attention to himself does everything to feed ego and nothing to ensure the success of his enterprise. The biggest mistake he makes is agreeing to wear a flashy, full-length chinchilla coat and matching hat to an Ali-Frazier fight, which draws just enough attention to himself to put him in Roberts' crosshairs.
Roberts, on the other hand, is the quintessential good cop who is reminded of his honesty over and over again when people from both sides of the law ask him about why he decided to turn in almost a million dollars of unmarked bills he found in the trunk of a car. Roberts is the last straight man standing, the only one truly interested in taking down Lucas and his ilk, rather than feeding parasitically off the fringe benefits. Yet, his personal life is a mess. A womanizer who cheated on his wife and rarely has time to spend with his young son, Roberts is the inverse of Lucas: noble in his profession, a wreck to his family.
Those expected gangbusters will ultimately be disappointed by American Gangster. It is much more of a slow burn, as Scott builds up the tension of Roberts's investigation and Lucas's expanding empire. Shot on location throughout the Big Apple, it has an effectively seedy atmosphere, recreating an era prior to gentrification when the city was a true cesspool of crime and violence. And, while the film is rightly touted for putting two heavyweight movie stars with real acting chops together, there are some unfortunate inconsistencies in the performances. There is no way to escape the fact that Washington's performance as Lucas is a soft peddle of a nefarious real-life personality, especially if you've read interviews with the real deal. As portrayed in American Gangster, Lucas is a romantic antihero who we can admire for his restraint and acumen, but chastise for his criminality; unfortunately, this results in an uneven character whose sudden bursts of violence feel tacked on, rather than organic.
Thus, while American Gangster has its strong points, it never quite gels into the epic portrait of criminality and redemption to which it aspires. Perhaps the genre itself has had too many “classics” like The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983) to which American Gangster, with its self-consciously archetypal title, will inevitably be compared and ultimately be found lacking (it lacks the melodramtic grandiosity of The Godfather, it doesn't have the vulgar heady rush of Scarface, etc.). It's not that it is in any way a bad movie, it just has the misfortune of coming across as a letdown, which the passage of time may or may not remedy.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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