Would I be overdoing it by calling American Gangster an American masterpiece? I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any other movie this year more than this one. This is vintage Ridley Scott, who shows us why he’s possibly the best filmmaker working today and, in my opinion, one of the 10 best directors in film history. Why is he so great? Because he’s made so many great movies out of numerous different genres. With Science Fiction he made Alien and Blade Runner. He made one of the best chick flicks ever in Thelma and Louise. He also made two great historic pieces with Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. (I am fully aware that most people didn’t like Kingdom of Heaven, but it’s a film that I personally love, especially the director’s cut.)
Now with the help of two Academy Award winning actors, he has crafted perhaps the best and most authentic gangster movie of the decade; yes, even more so than Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. For those of you who are wondering who would win a one-on-one cinematic battle between Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, American Gangster won’t provide any concrete results. Both actors are equally outstanding and fit into their respective roles perfectly.
Based on a true story, American Gangster tells the tale of Frank Lucas (Washington) who lives by the code â€œYou are what you are in this world and that’s one of two things: either you’re somebody or you ain’t nobody.â€ Lucas flew under the radar during his tenure as the most dangerous gangster in Harlem. As he advises his brother, who’s is trying to look like a pimp,â€œthe loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.â€ Lucas managed to keep his business of trafficking heroine throughout New York City and New Jersey very low-key by partnering with a well-known and wealthy drug lord. So much so that when the local police starts investigating this heroine breakout, they focus on this drug lord, while Frank, the real muscle behind the operation, goes unnoticed.
The leader of that investigation is honest cop Richie Roberts. All of his career, Roberts has sacrificed everything, including his wife and child, to serve his city. His character is perfectly defined in a scene in which Roberts turns in a million untraceable dollars as evidence instead of taking it for himself. There’s not many cops that would have done that and that’s one of the things Scott does so well in this film: showing the gray areas of the situation that aren’t usually touched upon. Scott is not afraid to show what police corruption and heroine dealing does to the average poor Harlem citizen and there are some scenes that are not easy to watch but they separate American Gangster from the good organized crime movies and make the movie special.
American Gangster is a movie that starts out strong and just keeps getting better and better and better as it goes along and all the tension leads up to a fantastic cops and robbers shoot out scene that’s extremely well executed. Some critics might complain that the movie takes to long to get anywhere but I think Scott’s approach to his storytelling is just brilliant. The first half is shot almost like a docudrama, developing our two main characters and showing us how they got to where they are. For example, the first half deals with how Lucas established connections in South Asia during the Vietnam War so he could have the American military unknowingly import heroin into the U.S. As for Richie Roberts, we learn about the honest cop that he is and the family issues he is having. Instead of Scott making the film flashy and saying â€œlook at me, I’m a gangster movie,â€ he delves into the lives of Lucas and Roberts. This makes the second half, which is structured (beautifully, I might add) more like a real movie with real action and plot points, even better. Basically, Scott took 75 minutes developing his characters without boring us for a moment and then used the other 75 minutes to develop a compelling story.
The performances by these two brilliant actors rival the best of their great careers. Washington has won two Oscars and Crowe has won one. Both actors seem to get lost in their roles and are the heart and soul of the film. There have been some great leading performances this year and it wouldn’t bother me in the least bit if one of these guys took home the gold in February. Washington will probably get more publicity given his role but if I had to choose, I would give the nod to Crowe. My deciding factor is just in a couple of scenes in which he perfectly defines who his character is and what he stands for. One is a scene where he denies a bribe and another is a courtroom scene in which he and his wife are having a custody hearing for their son. Washington on the other hand does a fantastic job portraying a family man who at the same time can easily become a violent sociopath. It’s so hard to decide between the two.
There is some great work in the supporting performances as well. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I think could be the next Denzel, plays Frank’s brother and right hand man Huey and does a nice job of being the loyal sidekick. Josh Brolin (Grindhouse) is probably the standout of the supporting cast as the corrupt detective Trupo, who expects to be bribed by every gangster in New York, including Lucas. Brolin has that perfect prick attitude and the audience starts disliking him more than Lucas. Cuba Gooding Junior appears in the film as a flashy pimp, and that just about sums up the bad year he is having (Norbit, Daddy Day Camp). Thankfully he is not in the movie for long because if he were he would probably embarrass himself. One more supporting actor worth noting is Ted Levine (TV’s Monk), who plays Roberts’ boss.
The editing by Pietro Scalia (Hannibal Rising) is seamless and deserves special recognition given the film’s 157 minute running time. Cinematographer Harris Savides, who did this year’s earlier impressive crime drama Zodiac, captures that same authentic late 1960′s/early 1970′s look he did with that film. Scott and his crew have exquisitely presented their film with the detail one would find in a novel. The director does everything with style but still manages to wisely put more emphasis on ‘tell’ instead of ‘show.’ You add all of this with a music score that fits like a slipper, and you get an American crime classic. I won’t say that American Gangster is the best motion picture of 2007 but I will say that it will be extremely hard to top.
||Release Date: November 2, 2007
Rated: R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.
Running Time: 157 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian, Mark Jacobson
Studio: Universal Pictures
Official Website: AmericanGangster.net