American Gangster (2007) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality
Running time: 157 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Hawkes, RZA, Ruby Dee, Carla Gugino, Cuba Gooding Jr., Armand Assante, Joe Morton, Idris Elba, Common, T.I., Kevin Corrigan, Jon Polito, KaDee Strickland
Cameo: Fab 5 Freddy
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian (based on the New York magazine article, "The Return of Superfly", by Mark Jacobson)
Review published October 24, 2007
Based on early 1970s heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Washington, Deja Vu), American Gangster is a typical gangster film in that it depicts the rise and fall of a criminal who made it to the pinnacle of his chosen "profession" and what it took to stay on top of a game no one wanted to concede was his to win. His operations were not only notable because he was a Black man who muscled his way into territory reserved primarily for Italian families, but also the manner in which he shipped in his product, direct from the fields of Vietnam, during the height of the conflict. Those are the parts that are true -- the bulk of the movie, like many with the "based on a real story" intro, is embellished with heaps of dramatic license. Do you expect anything less from the man who directed the critically acclaimed, but woefully historically inaccurate Gladiator?
American Gangster is directed by a visionary director in Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven, Matchstick Men), though Scott doesn't craft a revolutionary entry in the genre so much as crib from proven winners. From Goodfellas to The Untouchables to Heat to Scarface to The Godfather saga, Scott sticks to the predetermined game plan to give us that which we know and enjoy, and it is to his credit that he does it well, even if the film offers little that we haven't seen before. Steven Zaillian (The Interpreter, Gangs of New York) provides the script, playing up the parallel lives and requisite character contrasts with precision. With excellent technical specs and two of the finest actors in the business in the lead roles, American Gangster is not unlike Frank Lucas himself, a polished, professional effort that gives the people what they want when they want it, without diluting the product.
Perhaps the film needn't have encroached close to the three-hour mark to tell its tale, as side characters played by Cuba Gooding Jr (Daddy Day Camp, Norbit), who portrays "Mr. Untouchable" Nicky Barnes, and Kevin Corrigan (Superbad, The Dog Problem) feel more like pit stops for character contrast than crucial characters to push the plot forward. Even if it is longish, interest in the proceedings rarely wanes. Washington is commanding, as always, and Russell Crowe (3:10 to Yuma, Cinderella Man) does a fine job in a subdued role as the incorruptible cop whose life is in shambles because he's just too honest to help himself when he needs it. They don't appear on screen together very much, however, as Lucas' story is all about the rise of his drug empire without being investigated (paying off the cops helps), while Richie Roberts' depicts the fall and rise of a cop who became a pariah to the point he made for the best man to head up an investigation for narcotics in the city -- one of the few not on the take in narc.
American Gangster may not break any new ground, but it does what it is intended to do, which is to entertain the audience with gripping and thoughtful precision. As a story of the price of success, it makes no bones about glamorizing the lifestyle at the top of the drug trade, with both cop and crook coming off as proud men with too much character to be confused with the other slime that permeated both sides of the coin. The life of Frank Lucas is depicted as one who had everything money could buy, but he was never quite able to stop to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Part of staying on top means having to defend himself from everyone wanting a piece of the pie, if not take the whole pie from him altogether. Even surrounding himself with men he felt he could trust, his family, sometimes became more of a liability, as he kept around corruptible forces a bit longer than he normally would have with someone not his blood.
Although it is glossy and and embellishes the truth in a hyperbolic fashion in order to spin a ripping good yarn, American Gangster is made with consummate efficiency (with the possible exception of the length) from a cast and crew of the best craftsmen in the business. In terms of gangster films, while it may not rise to the level of a Scorsese or Coppola opus, Scott's film can reside comfortably on the same tier as those made by Michael Mann or Brian De Palma, whose films balanced slick direction with stellar acting -- rather lengthy, yet without ever losing narrative momentum. Like Lucas' own drug, which he labeled with the brand name of "Blue Magic", it isn't offering a different product; it just gives you more bang for your buck than what anyone else is offering these days.
©2007 Vince Leo