American Gangster

November 21, 2007

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Possibly the most hyped movie of the season and the one expected to clean up at the Oscars, American Gangster does have an awful lot going for it. Ridley Scott directs and Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star in this adaptation of the true story of Frank Lucas (Washington), a driver for infamous Harlem gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson who, after Bumpy’s death, became the biggest heroin kingpin in New York, who was eventually taken down by Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe). It has the stars, the story, but almost the most important thing that American Gangster has is its title. American Gangster. The coolest, most quintessential title imaginable for what might well be the coolest, most quintessential gangster film.

It’s interesting that American Gangster is such an original story, yet the film itself cannot call itself truly original. In many ways it has the best parts of Coppola, Scorcese and Mann’s crime epics such as The Godfather, GoodFellas and Heat rolled into one stunningly classy film. But that’s not to say that it is a carbon copy. American Gangster stands up in its own right as a film that delivers a remarkably assured and controlled narrative, assisted by flawless performances by every member of the cast, incredibly accurate period detail and a brilliant soundtrack of classic funk, soul, jazz and hip hop.

In one endlessly satisfying way, Scott uses a similar style to HBO’s groundbreaking television series The Wire (i.e. the best television show ever created). Its not quite as gritty and it’s more stylish, but the step up from television to cinema entails as much. Scott is in complete control of the fascinating source material and makes the most of all the situations. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing that Lucas did, something that his contemporaries would never have had the intelligence nor patience to attempt, was to travel to Vietnam during the war and smuggle pure-grade heroin back to America in the coffins of dead US soldiers. On its arrival in America, he would sell the best on the street at a lower price. This guy clearly knew what he was doing.

Both Lucas and Roberts are outsiders in their respective professions, with specific codes of ethics that they work by. Roberts hands in $1million in drug money he confiscates, rather than keep it himself and buy a nicer house and a Mustang. This act causes him to be looked at with contempt by the rest of the corrupt cops in his division, and serious worry for his junkie partner Rivera (John Ortiz). Lucas insists that his business be run in the same way that his mentor Bumpy would have. There’s also an array of supporting characters that bridge the gap between the two, most notably the supremely bent Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin, absolutely superb). He’s the epitome of the ultra-corrupt police force of the time – always strutting with three fellow cops at his heels, he has got rich from allowing organised crime to thrive by extorting and taking cuts from the gangsters running the streets. It adds another layer to the already magnificent story.

Washington is at home with this character. It’s clear after only the first couple of seconds that he hasn’t had a role this good since his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day.

He channels some of Alonzo Harris’ charisma and aggression into Lucas, as well as a thoughtful grandeur that makes him really stand out. That swagger he’s displayed to great effect before is apparent, but only when necessary. It’s very much Washington’s show, but Crowe more than holds his own. He injects real pathos into Roberts, and his scenes with ex-wife Laurie (Carla Gugino) are surprisingly moving. Crowe has that sensitivity that he brought to his role in The Insider, and like Jeffrey Wigand is suffering for doing the right thing.Another reason why American Gangster succeeds is: it’s pure entertainment. It’s massively stylish and overflowing with cool. Though it doesn’t have the astonishing intensity of Michael Mann’s films, it is simply brilliant.

THE CRUNCH

5/5  bad cops bribed

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