Film review by: Witney Seibold
Frank Lucas was a terrible man, and a brilliant businessman. In the 1970s, in Harlem, he went past the usual dope dealers to offer a powerful new heroin alternative which he carried himself back from the opium fields of Cambodia. He dressed down when most of the Harlem gangsters were dolling up. He kept his family close as his business associates, killed competitors indiscriminately on the street, and made millions. Lucas was eventually caught by a hard-working narc named Richie Roberts thanks to a years-long elaborate sting.
“American Gangster” is a brilliant film, and may make it onto my year-end list of the best of 2007. It is taut, clear, and portrays the fragile world of the criminal, and the obsessed mindset of the moral. It works on the level of history, character study, criminology report, sociological study, and just plain thriller. Due largely to the strengths of the two lead actors: Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas as a hard-working, business-minded, ruthless man. He is so intelligent, and has such a strong head for business, that we kind of admire his initiative and wherewithal, despite the fact that he’s providing a poor neighborhood with the drug that is largely destroying it. We admire his warmth and love of his family, even though he’s been exploiting the Vietnam War as an excuse to smuggle drugs.
Russell Crowe plays Roberts as sort of a sad-sack. He is in the middle of a nasty divorce, and can’t make enough time for (simultaneously) his son, his law school, his mistress, and his police work. Roberts is no chain-smoking Dirty Harry-type, though; he has, in fact, earned himself a horrible reputation amongst the other cops in the town for finding nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills… and turning it in like a good cop (the decorum of the time and place would demand that he steal it). He is a smart man who lets his desire to do right get in the way of his need to be accepted. He’s almost playing the Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) role from “L.A. Confidential” (Josh Brolin would probably be the one who plays the Bud White role, the one Crowe himself played).
There are scenes of Frank with his large, close-knit family. There are scenes of Roberts with his crumbling shambles of a homelife. There are scenes of heroin labs, dusty police offices, highfalutin’ criminal’s parties, and hard-working narcs’ desks… There’s actually not too much in “American Gangster” that we haven’t seen in other crime flicks. In fact, we know from the outset that Lucas must be brought down by Roberts, so tension over an unknown ending is absent. What this film does, though, is stretches each detail into something relevant. Every conflict reflects on one of the two men involved in the traffic. There are added subplots, like an entire tapestry of long-established police corruption, family members acting out, and Roberts’ family drama (Carla Gugino plays his ex-wife). But none of the subplots feel like distractions or stalling tactics. “American Gangster” belongs to a genre usually only explored my Martin Scorsese: the epic crime drama.
This is the second Ridley Scott film I have liked in earnest. Scott has made some masterpieces in his day (“Alien,” “Thelma & Loiuse”), many middling films (“Blade Runner,” “1492: Conquest of Paradise”), and a number of outright stinkers (“G.I. Jane,” “Matchstick Men,” “Gladiator”). Scott is a hard director to pin down. He has made historical epics, character comedies, thrillers, horror films, sci-fi, action, and “A Good Year.” Although I haven’t necessarily liked a lot of his films, I can say for certain that he is a diverse and capable director. He has more films like “American Gangster” in him, and perhaps he will treat us to a few more like it.
Also in “American Gangster” were Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ted Levine, Kevin Corrigan, Cuba Gooding, Jr. (as a dandyish second-tier crime boss), and RZA (sporting his Wu-Tang tattoo prominently on his arm… oops).
My one pet peeve with American Gangster” was the photography. A lot of directors seem really fond of the shaky, grainy, smoky photography that makes it look like old film stock… or rather makes it look like it’s trying to look like old film stock. I find it distracting a lot of the time, but this is such a small quibble that it’s hardly worth mentioning.