Friday, November 9, 2007

Movie Review: American Gangster

Calling a movie American Gangster immediately sets it up for comparisons to mob classics like The Godfather and GoodFellas. But Ridley Scott's real-life portrait of Frank Lucas, a Vietnam War-era Harlem drug lord, and Richie Roberts, the Jersey cop obsessed with taking him down, isn't that kind of film. Instead, American Gangster is a character-study/police-procedural hybrid that's complex and compelling over its deliberately paced two-and-a-half hours. While Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Roberts (Russell Crowe) both share a desire to excel professionally, the similarities stop there. Lucas, as family oriented as any Mafia boss, is a guy with enough self-confidence to shoot a colleague to death on a busy sidewalk in broad daylight; Roberts, a failed husband and father who spends his nights with a bevy of different women, is so scared of public speaking that he can barely address the handful of cops working under him. Lucas supposedly had three-quarters of the NYPD narcotics officers on his payroll; Roberts alienated himself from his fellow cops when he found a million dollars in a suspect's car and chose to turn the money in rather than keep it. American Gangster tells the story of how Lucas, with the savvy of a Wharton graduate, came of with a revolutionary business plan for selling heroin on the street: Eliminate the middle man (by traveling to Vietnam to buy the uncut drug and smuggling it back via U.S. military planes), give the product a catchy brand name (Blue Magic), and make it better than your competition's (twice as strong but for only half the price). When his closet-junkie partner OD's on Blue Magic, it becomes personal for Roberts. The cat-and-mouse games that follow allow director Scott to develop the two characters (both Washington and Crowe are typically superb) and recreate '70s New York in all its pre-Giuliani gritty glory. That Washington and Crowe only share the screen briefly toward the end of the film is slightly disappointing, but it's watching the separate journeys their characters take to get there that makes Scott's movie so engrossing.

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