Gangster Movie Month: "American Gangster" Review

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Set in America during the 1970's, a Detective (played by Russell Crowe) works to bring down the drug empire of Manhattan kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). The 2007 film is adapted from a New York magazine story titled "The Return of Superfly" by Mark Jacobson. Also starring Josh Brolin, Ted Levine and Carla Gugino.
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Gangster Movie Month: "American Gangster" Review

-- Rating: R (violence, nudity, sexuality, pervasive drug content, and language)
Length: 157 minutes
Release Date: November 2, 2007
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Genre: Biography/Crime/Drama

"American Gangster" tells the compelling tale of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a 1970s drug kingpin in Harlem who completely changed the way the drug business was run in order to ascend to the top of the illicit trade. The film begins by showing him in his criminal infancy, when he was just another henchman to legendary gangster Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). When Bumpy became ill, Lucas took care of him until his death and then took over the business. At the time, all the drugs came into the country from Southeast Asia, where various mobsters had a hand in distribution. With so many hands in the honey pot, the cost of the drugs was much higher than the market could sustain.

Lucas uses his smarts to transform the way the heroin trade was run. He flies to Thailand on a dangerous mission to meet the man who makes all the heroin. In doing so, he gains his trust and gets an exclusive contract for the heroin, which will be smuggled into the United States in coffins. This cuts out all the middlemen, providing a high-quality product for a significantly lower cost. Instead of pocketing all the profits, Lucas pays his henchmen well, even giving them turkeys on Thanksgiving to thank them for their loyalty. Happy, well-paid employees are loyal ones, a business rule that Lucas used to keep his underlings in line.

The cops know that a new person has risen to take Bumpy's place, but they have no idea it is Lucas, a mild-mannered family man who takes his mom to church every Sunday. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a narcotics detective who has made it his mission to find out who replaced Bumpy. He runs into many obstacles along the way, especially from Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), a crooked cop who doesn't like Roberts. It turns out that Trupo and most of the other detectives in the precinct are crooked, which means a truly good-guy cop like Roberts could be in more danger at the hands of his colleagues than the criminals he's chasing, including Lucas.

When the film was released in the fall of 2007, many thought Washington would get an Oscar nomination for his performance. He was eventually shut out of the Academy Award nominations, though he did get a Golden Globe nod; however, that doesn't lessen his performance in any way. He plays Lucas with a mixture of coolness under pressure and gravitas very few actors could have pulled off. In one scene in particular, he must punish an enemy for doing him wrong, so he lights him on fire. After a few seconds of watching his victim burn alive, he shoots him in the head to put him out of his intense misery. It is almost unbelievable that a man could be so brutal and yet so merciful all in the same act. Somehow, Washington pulls off this difficult scene and makes it seem easy to boot.

Scott and Crowe have worked together on several films, including "Gladiator," which helped make Crowe's career what it is today. Their familiarity with each other shows: Crowe is clearly very comfortable in the film, which allows him to turn in a fantastic performance as a man being torn in three directions. Between his wife's yearning for him to stop taking such dangerous cases, his shunning by the crooked cops in his unit, and his desire to do the right thing, Crowe's character is always conflicted. The yearning to solve all of his life's complicated conundrums shows on Crowe's face at all times, especially when he is sniffing out Lucas' latest crime. This performance proves he doesn't need a sword or sandals to create a nuanced character viewers really care about.

Normally, a film about the rise and fall of a drug kingpin would end with his death or lengthy imprisonment, but "American Gangster" is not a typical crime film. In keeping with the way he has always run things, Lucas treats his arrest as a business transaction, negotiating with the cops to get out of at least some of the trouble and charges he faced. It is a downright quiet end by most crime film standards, but it is very fitting. Scott resists the temptation to turn the film into an action film instead of the character study it really is. "American Gangster" is a much more thought-provoking film as a result, which might just make it accessible to a much wider audience. Moviegoers who don't generally like gangster movies may actually like this film, because it transcends the genre while remaining very entertaining.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars