American Gangster

I can count on maybe two hands how many gangster films I’ve seen and, if I’m being generous, I can count on one hand how many I’ve actually enjoyed. The new organized crime flick, American Gangster headlines A-listers, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. It clocks in at 2 hours and 37 minutes long. But I could’ve enjoyed about 2 more hours of this fiery, impassioned ode to mafia stories and crooked cop dramas. (I finally have a hankering to rent Serpico!) This is the tale of the notorious Harlem heroin boss of the 1970s, Frank Lucas, and the high-minded cop, Richie Roberts, who brings him to justice.

The movie takes place at a time when corrupt cops were ubiquitous in New York City. These cops capitalized on the drug trade for their own personal diet and profit. But side-stepping any entanglements with sleazy cops and entrenched Italian mafia types, is Frank Lucas (Washington), former henchman to Harlem boss Bumpy Johnson, who comes up with a business plan like that of “Direct Buy” to turn the then-current drug trade system around on its head. Lucas travels to Southeast Asia to acquire his drugs so there are no middlemen to dilute its potency and market value. His drug- appropriately named “Blue Magic”, is as pure as the wind-driven snow and sells at half the price of his competitors. This throws honest cop Roberts (Crowe) for a loop, who has problems of his own.

Crowe’s character Roberts has a weakness for casual relationships and a strength for honesty on the job. He faces a moral dilemma when he comes across a trunk full of unmarked dough during a stakeout. Crowe’s character turns the money in much to the chagrin of his fellow colleagues. He’s shunned and is regarded by the department as the black plague. His superior Toback (Ted Levine) puts the blackballed detective in charge of a federal task force to uncover the city’s heroin suppliers. Street smart and intuitive, Roberts discovers the trail leads not to the typical Italian mob bosses but to the clandestine, low-profiled Lucas.

Many of the characters in the story are fleshed out and multi-dimensional. I mean that literally besides figuratively in the case with Crowe’s character. We aren’t accustomed to seeing a rather rotund Russell who is playing somewhat of a softie who’s kind of soft in the middle too. The fiercely intense actor has bucked the Russell Crowe-rough-around-the-edges-performance for a more self-afflicted vulnerability. Richie has “let himself go” which is personified in his relationships. He’s in the middle of a custody battle with his ex-wife, Laurie, played by a worn out and weathered-looking Carla Gugino who looks like she has more miles on her that the total number of women Richie is sleeping with. Josh Brolin takes a riveting – and almost unrecognizable — turn as the disreputable Detective Trupo. He takes on the air of a sleazy used car salesman in his characterization of a corrupt cop on a mission for “his cut”.

Denzel is in classic Denzel form, he is a dominant and imposing presence in every shot of every scene. Cold, calculating, and unpredictable—he’s a titan of crime who has no moral qualms about the lives he’s ruining, the junkies he’s creating. Whether he’s bashing his rowdy cousin’s head in a piano or stealing the Puerto Rican beauty queen, Eva (Lymari Nadal), right out from underneath the nose of heavyweight champion Joe Lewis, Denzel is the man, he’s at the top of the pyramid. Ruby Dee, as his mother, is a scene stealer, however. At a moment when Lucas’ life is crumbling around him, and he’s about to take revenge upon Detective Trupo, this tiny little woman transforms herself into a towering giant by unleashing a can of whoop-ass that reduces her son from an enraged colossus to an obedient little boy who can’t fight back. It’s a triumphant moment for mothers everywhere.

What’s so great about the movie is the writing. Screenwriter Steve Zaillian confesses to Script magazine how he wrote two screenplays, one for the Lucas story and another for the Roberts story. The two characters live separate distinct lives, neither character aware of the other’s existence. Halfway through the movie, it’s Roberts who discovers Lucas, whereas Lucas’ awareness of Roberts manifests toward the end. They are two films blended into one, a beautiful intertwining of parallel lives that are connected by fate. The two protagonists battle the same enemy—“Johnny Law”—best exemplified by the character of Detective Trupo. The movie is ultimately about justice. And justice is served.

What makes Gangster stand out amongst Goodfellas or The Godfather is that it’s a character study rather then a shoot-em-up action piece. It’s not bogged down by convoluted plot points or multiple back stories where you’d need the cliff notes to follow along. And it didn’t weigh me down with that hopeless existential weight that is omnipresent in almost every mob hit from The Departed to The Sopranos. It’s gritty and dirty thus capturing the flavor of the late 60’s and early 70’s, but it’s ultimately a case study showcasing one of many principles stated by Martin Luther King Jr. that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

5 thoughts on “American Gangster”

  1. This review is indeed good. I can see why it’s a little lengthy; the movie’s complexity was thoroughly explained. I like the concise choice of words and the layout of this review. The disposition of the characters was laid out well. I do think the movie was a little long.

  2. Leslie DuFresne nailed it! Well written. Based on the review, I went to the movie this afternoon. I did not, however, even notice that it was long. I enjoyed every minute.

  3. I think this is one of the best films of the year so far (4.5 out of 5). Denzel on powerful and impacting form as per usual and Crowe giving the more subtle preformance.

    Nice review.

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