Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Casting two time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington and Academy Award winner Russell Crowe is just the tip of the acting talent involved in Director Ridley Scott’s ‘American Gangster’, though Mr. Washington and Mr. Crowe did do battle in 1995’s ‘Virtuosity’, though I’m thinking neither master thespian is going to discuss that film much in their press junkets.  With Joe Morton, Idris Elba, Carla Gugino, Madame Ruby Dee, Josh Brolin, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Armand Assante, Chiwetal Ejiofor and the list goes on, it seems all Ridley Scott had to do was ask and they came.  So with a pedigreed director that would put a show trained Golden Retriever to shame, a pair of leads that have more hardware on their shelves than a home depot and a support staff that would make the Geek Squad cower in fear, is there any way for ‘American Gangster’ to be anything but excellent?  No, as it turns out, there’s no way.

Our film opens showing Frank Lucas (Washington) as the driver, confidant and executioner for legendary Harlem gangster Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson (Clarence Williams III) of ‘Hoodlum’ fame.  Early on we are allowed to witness the cold brutality that encompasses Frank Lucas as well as his loyalty to the dying Johnson.  But with Bumpy Johnson passing on, a void is left as the competition violently attempts to scoop up what Johnson has left behind.  Respect is slow to come the way of Frank Lucas as he is considered simply the hired help and not a legitimate successor to control Bumpy’s abandoned territories.

Across the river in New Jersey, tough cop Richie Roberts has already built up quite a name for himself as an insanely honest cop from the day he and his partner Javier Rivera (John Ortiz) stumbled across car with a cool million in unmarked bills and

Richie turned it in, as opposed to keeping it, which we see is the unwritten rule of the station house.  Though this act has made Roberts a pariah in his precinct, it has also made him the ideal candidate to head up a newly formed Narcotics division staffed with his own brand of ‘untouchables’ to track down and apprehend the heavy hitters in the local war on drugs.

This would include Frank Lucas who has observed that a large number of soldiers come back from Vietnam as stone junkies and correctly figures he could corner the market if he could get the same junk that they were getting in Southeast Asia.  Faster than you can say ‘Delta Gets you There’, Frank brokers a deal with the distributor in Thailand, uses his cousins military connects to get his smack stateside and an empire is born.  What keeps Frank Lucas in Alpaca rugs, Steinway’s and out of the sights of Richie Roberts and his investigators are his no mercy management style, his insistence on being low key, surrounding himself with trusted family members and most importantly the fact the color of his skin leads to him being sorely underestimated.  But it’s only a matter of time before Richie Roberts picks up his scent and Frank’s house of cards starts to tumble.  But this is a task way easier said than done, as the repercussions of said act will turn out to be explosive.

It would seem in the Tri-State area in the late sixties and early seventies there are only two men of any principle, and these would be Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas.   Neither man, including Richie Roberts, would be considered a ‘decent’ person but at least you know where you stand.  It is this dynamic representation of both characters which makes ‘American Gangster’ so compelling.  If a viewer goes into this film expecting a ‘mob’ movie, that viewer will be disappointed because there isn’t a lot traditional ‘mob’ stuff going on.  But what you will get is an education on the politics of corruption, the folly of racism and the business of crime, as simply watching Frank Lucas berate fellow drug kingpin Nicky Starks (Cuba Gooding Jr.) on ‘copyright infringement’ is simply classic.  Ridley Scott and Denzel Washington have to travel a fine line in avoiding romanticizing Frank Lucas and I think they were able to effectively pull it off since we’re never far from the horrors of drug addiction or the explosive, albeit controlled anger that simmers under Frank Lucas’ psyche.  Washington’s performance here was far more effective than his Oscar turn as the psychotic cop Alonzo Harris in ‘Training Day’ as there was more to this character than simply being ‘crazy’.  Crowe’s character was given more to work however with his family issues, professional issues, and heritage issues.  Richie Roberts isn’t a dirty cop, but he’s just about a dirty everything else, and he seems fairly oblivious to this fact.  He’s also Jewish, as he is called a Kike - who makes up these racial slurs - during the film which also adds to the characters complexity.

From the locations, to the performances to the authentic use of the time period ‘American Gangster’ strikes nary a false note.  Even the length at over two and half hours wasn’t felt, and I’m extremely time sensitive.  Though I wouldn’t place this film up there with the all-time great gangster films, i.e., ‘Godfather’, ‘Goodfellas’ or even the grossly underrated ‘Menace II Society’, reason being, as good as a film that this is, it simply lacks the emotional impact of those previous films.  Still, ‘American Gangster’ is one hell of a film and it’s going to have hard time staying off my best of 2007 list, to be sure.  Now if only Washington and Crowe can get together and make ‘Virtuosity II’.  Wow.  If ever a movie was begging for a sequel…

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