Mark Reviews Movies

AMERICAN GANGSTER

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Cuba Gooding Jr., RZA, Ted Levine, Ruby Dee, Armand Assante, Carla Gugino

MPAA Rating:  (for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality)

Running Time: 2:37

Release Date: 11/2/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Had Frank Lucas devoted his life to philanthropy instead of gaining limitless wealth through the destruction of other people's lives and the continuing destitution of his community, he might not have been rich or notorious, but he could easily have made a difference for the better. Instead, as we see in the account of his rise to criminal kingpin and "fall" to infamy American Gangster, Lucas used his power and keen business sense to make a fine life for those close to him and a hell for those unfortunate enough not to be supported by him or to have the means to do any better on their own. Ridley Scott's film, therefore, has a difficult challenge of trying to portray Lucas as an ambitious, enviable folk hero even while occasionally showing just what kind of abominable destruction he conveyed to everyone around him. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian (based on an article by Mark Jacobson) does a decent enough job keeping that tricky contradiction at bay until near the end, when we're supposed to buy that Lucas was somehow a victim. Until that point, though, the film is a finely weaved tapestry of absolute corruption and its effects on the key players and those unlucky souls caught in the crossfire.

Denzel Washington plays Lucas, and his story begins here in the late '60s with him as a driver for Harlem crime lord Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III). When Bumpy dies of a heart attack, Lucas takes over the syndicate but with plans of his own. Bumpy despised the idea of people cutting out the middleman, as that was usually him or his associates, but Lucas decides to cut out the middleman completely. Heroin is big business in Harlem, and while Lucas could continue to buy from suppliers in the city at high prices (for bad product, no less), he sees the Vietnam War as a potential for rejuvenating his affair. Heroin is also popular among soldiers, and Lucas decides to use a family contact in the Army in Bangkok to buy heroin directly from the source and bring it back to his neighborhood. Meanwhile in New Jersey, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a police officer working on narcotics crime, is the kind of cop other cops hate. He finds bags full of unmarked bills in the trunk of a car while on a stakeout and brings them in to the station to the disgust of his fellow officers. He's also going to law school, and eventually, he becomes the head of a federal narcotics task force stationed in Essex County.

Lucas calls his heroin "Blue Magic," for its resultant blue shade during potency testing, and he sells it at about half the cost of his competition. The real Lucas claimed to make a million dollars a day selling heroin, and he wasn't afraid to use the money. He pays for a huge condo in cash and buys his mother an estate. He takes his younger brothers in under his wing and teaches them the ropes of his business, using their businesses as shadow operations for importing drugs. He has a temper, too, scolding his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for wearing flashy outfits and publicly executing a local "landlord" who tries to get a percentage of his profits. He continues Bumpy's tradition of handing out turkeys to the people of the neighborhood on Thanksgiving, but it's with his other merchandise that he helps in producing his environment. There's a montage of Thanksgiving, as Roberts sits alone, a crooked New York detective (Josh Brolin) feels the wrath of Lucas' power, and folks lie out in a stupor after using Lucas' heroin. It's an important detail, usually left out of stories like this one that might glorify a destructor of people, and a necessary one.

What sets Lucas apart from his fellow drug lords—like Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.), or "Mr. Untouchable," who flaunts his success in every way—is that he stays on the down low. Roberts is convinced someone in one of the Italian crime families is responsible for "Blue Magic," and it's a legitimate shock when he finds Lucas at a boxing match, flaunting an ostentatious fur coat bought by his wife Eva (Lymari Nadal), sitting closer to the ring than his Mafia counterpart. Roberts is a man with a code of ethics alone in a world of similar corruption among law enforcement. His wife (Carla Gugino) can't handle his dedication and starts divorce proceedings, looking for full custody of their son. Cops take drugs from dealers and sell the same drugs back to their original owners, demand a cut of the action, and threaten anyone who goes against it. Zaillian's screenplay hits a lot of familiar notes, but that overriding sense of corruption in every arena of life on both sides of the law keeps the film from seeming completely like old hat. Scott keeps it moving a fast pace, and while Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are playing little more than archetypes, their performances are strong.

I liked the world Scott creates (or recreates) here, as well as Zaillian's depiction of power struggles among the most dishonest of individuals, enough to be involved throughout American Gangster. The ending is hard to swallow, not only because of some liberties with facts (Roberts is arresting officer and prosecutor?) but also because Lucas is ultimately portrayed as a sort of hero. He's not and never will be; he's just a bad man who did bad things in a great way.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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