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American Gangster

A movie directed by Ridley Scott

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Just as Every Cop Is a Criminal ... American Gangster

  • Nov 13, 2007
  • by
Pros: acting, cast, imagery, directing

Cons: long length, historical significance, some unnecessary subplots

The Bottom Line: Across 110th street, pushers won't the junkie go free.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

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 doesn’t 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, he’s 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 Lucas’s 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 Roberts’s 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 it’s 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

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December 06, 2010
I love Russell Crowe, and watch Bollywood flix all the time so 157 is nothing to me! Nice review. Roberts is a real guy too.
More American Gangster reviews
review by . August 12, 2009
American Gangster
 It is very hard for me to ever say no to a movie, but for a while I had stayed away from American Gangster.  I had gotten some mixed reviews about it and I was also told it was extremely long.  However, I finally gave in on Monday and watched it after my friend Laura told me it was worth it.  While I still think it was a bit to long, the film was spectacular.  The acting performances given by both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe were superb and oscar worthy.  This …
review by . April 10, 2009
This movie starts a little slow than picks up about midway to a fairly rapid end. Though not quite as good as Serpico, it is a good film nevertheless. Denzel Washington as Frank, the protege of the mob boss who ran Harlem. Frank learned everything from him such as keeping a low profile away from his business and being good to the neighborhood. Frank seems to elude all the police scrutiny until an organized crime unit in New Jersey headed by Russell Crowe (Ritchie) realizes that Frank must be someone …
review by . October 29, 2008
American Gangster
It's Harlem, 1968, and "Bumpy" Johnson is speaking to his driver and right-hand man Frank Lucas (the amazing Denzel Washington). Bumpy laments the loss of the middleman in business, the jobs lost to overseas companies, the end of the era of the working man. When Bumpy dies and Frank takes over, he omits the middleman too and purchases his heroin directly from Bangkok and ships it via military aircraft through Vietnam to the US. Frank is on his way up, and he doesn't let anyone stand in his way, …
review by . November 17, 2008
This is a very long and dark film based on a true story (with embellishments), and is set in Harlem and New Jersey during the time of the Vietnam War.     The first part of the story is about Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) a driver and enforcer for a leading Harlem gangster, who decides to get his own piece of the action when his boss passes away. Lucas goes about his business by getting his goods direct from the source, cutting out the middlemen and selling a high quality product …
review by . February 18, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
This viewer rented the DVD form of AMERICAN GANGSTER, having passed it by in the theatrical run, thinking that it was yet another 'crime and corruption in New York' genre film. It was surprising to discover that this very long film (just under three hours in the Unrated version) is completely riveting and in a way far different than the usual gangster film: this story, based on real people as outlined in an article by Mark Jacobson (transformed for the screen by Steven Zaillian), and while it has …
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About this movie


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.


  • Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas
  • Russell Crowe as Det. Richard "Richie" Roberts
  • John Ortiz as Javier Rivera|Det. Rivera
  • Lymari Nadal as Eva Kendo Lucas
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor as Huey Lucas
  • Josh Brolin as Det. Trupo
  • Ted Levine as Capt. Lou Toback
  • RZA as Moses Jones
  • Malcom Goodwin as Jimmy Zee
  • Ruby Dee as Mama Lucas
  • Armand Assante as Dominic Cattano
  • Cuba Gooding Jr. as Nicky Barnes
  • Roger Guenveur Smith as Nate
  • Carla Gugino as Laurie Roberts
  • Idris Elba as Tango
  • Jon Polito as Rossi
  • Roger Bart as U.S. Attorney
  • Clarence Williams III as Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson
  • Clifford "T.I." Harris as Steve Lucas
  • Lonnie "Common" Lynn as Turner Lucas
  • Delron Mims as Frank's younger brother
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Director: Ridley Scott
Genre: Crime, Drama
Release Date: 2 November 2007 (USA)
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Steven Zaillian, Mark Jacobson
Runtime: 157 min
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