In the New York City of American Gangster, it's hard to tell the cops from the criminals. Police officers consistently accept bribes from criminals, get a little overzealous with their guns during raids, and indulge in some of the drugs they confiscate.
When Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) turns in $1 million that he finds in the trunk of a car, he is seen as a freak. His partner is even shunned by his fellow police officers for being suspiciously honest. Director Ridley Scott doesnt have to explain why people turn to crime, but he does have to help us understand why Roberts walks the straight and narrow.
American Gangster assaults viewers with powerful images from the opening shot. The first scene shows Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) dousing a plastic-covered man with gasoline, setting him on fire, and then shooting him. Somehow, despite this, we find Lucas to be a likeable guy. As is the case with all organized crime movies, the viewer is inclined to sympathize with murderers.
Lucas, whose character is based on a real person, runs a massive drug-dealing operation in New York City in the 1960s and '70s. But Lucas is far from a thug. He runs his drug ring like a Fortune 500 company, dotes on his wife and mother, and is politically aware.
The way to succeed in business, Lucas says, is to sell a higher quality product at a lower price than the competition. Instead of buying cut-up heroin like the other dealers do, Lucas goes straight to the source of the poppy plants: Vietnam and Thailand. With the help of his soldier brother-in-law, Lucas smuggles pure heroin into the United States and makes it into his brand-name product, Blue Magic. Despite having a near-monopoly on New York's heroin scene, Lucas maintains a low profile and keeps the police off of his tail. Soon, hes more powerful than the Italian mafia.
This film doesn't glorify gangster life quite as much as some other movies do, but it also doesn't hit you over the head with how evil drug use is. Sure, we see people die from the needle, but the drugs remain primarily in the background as the main focus of American Gangster is Lucass relationship with the police department and the mob.
American Gangster has an all-star cast including some familiar faces from the rap world. You may notice an anachronistic Wu Tang Clan tattoo on RZA, who plays one of Robertss associates. Washington, on the other hand, is timeless. He moves from the 1960s to the early 90s seamlessly. Crowe, who is Australian, does a surprisingly impressive job portraying a New York cop. And it was fun to see a gun-toting Jewish hero for once! It's subtle, but Roberts wears a Star of David around his neck.
In fact, nothing in the film is too over the top, and Washington, especially, remains calm and collected even when offing people who betray him. In spite of all the violence, Lucas is depicted as a kind, avuncular businessman who just happens to be in the business of selling smack.
At times, AG features some excellent songs, especially "Across 110th St.," but the soundtrack could have been put to better use. Ridley Scott is no Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarrantino. And speaking of Tarrantino, I wondered if Scott got the idea to use the aforementioned song from watching Jackie Brown.
I also felt that this film could have been more focused on historical events. The Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, and Muhammad Ali get passing mentions, but I thought that the movie could have been more profound if it had delved deeper into political issues.
If you have problems sitting still or a small bladder, you may want to wait for American Gangster to come out on DVD as its 157 minutes long. The movie never drags, but some of the side plot about Roberts's ex-wife and son could have been trimmed. And Cuba Gooding Jr.'s part is entirely unnecessary. Perhaps Scott wanted to add another big name to the movie posters? That's hardly necessary with two Oscar winners playing the lead roles.
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age
What did you think of this review?
American Gangster is a 2007 crime film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Washington portrays Frank Lucas, a real-life gangster from Harlem who smuggled heroin into the United States on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. Crowe portrays Richie Roberts, a detective attempting to bring down Lucas' drug empire. Filming was done on location in New York City. American Gangster was released in the United States and Canada on November 2, 2007. The film was also nominated for two Academy Awards, including a notable Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ruby Dee who appears on screen for less than 10 minutes.