American Gangster

There’s nothing more inspiring than the story of someone succeeding in life against all the odds. And although I imagine all cultures have such stories, they seem to be central to the American promise. If you work hard and smart, you’ll win.

Which is why we like Frank Lucas in American Gangster, even though the first time we see him he’s dowsing a bound man with gasoline, setting him on fire, and then firing four or five bullets into him. Besides being ruthless, Frank is smart. He eschews the trappings of his gangster lifestyle, the wide brimmed hats and brightly colored brocaded coats, because he knows that stuff makes you a target for the police photographers and increases the chances that your picture will wind up on some cop’s bulletin board.

Frank’s ambitious, however. He wants the money, power and respect, if not the clothes. In a brilliant scheme he arranges to have high quality heroin smuggled into the country, bypassing the Italian mobs who serve as middlemen and putting a highly potent product into the street under the “brand” name Blue Magic for a lower price than anybody else.

New Jersey Cop Richie Roberts, as a contrast, is a slob. He’s a neglectful father and straying husband, with a temper. He’s not as smart as Frank, but he’s not dumb. And most importantly, he’s honest, a rare trait for a cop in 1970’s New Jersey. After he alienates his fellow cops by turning in a million dollars, he’s given a position as a special investigator, going after the big fish, the major players in the drug business.

The film follows these two figures in parallel stories as they gravitate toward each other and the climax of the movie. Denzel Washington plays Frank as an amoral general, who  hates the white man because of all the overt bigotry he saw while growing up in Greensboro, NC, and also despises his  black customers in Harlem because they are weak. It is a nuanced and convincing performance.

Russell Crowe plays Richie. It’s a solid performance in what is really not a flashy role. Crowe does it well enough.  Josh Brolin plays Trupo, a particularly nasty corrupt narcotics detective. Ruby Dee is dignified as Frank’s mother. And Cuba Gooding Jr. has something of a return to form as a flashy drug lord.

Ridley Scott directs with a steady hand even though he doesn’t have the same feel for the street that say Martin Scorcese does. The script by Steven Zallian and Mark Jacobson doesn’t really achieve a good balance between the two story arcs, mostly because Frank’s story is so much more compelling.

Overall, though American Gangster is a terrific film about the American experience.


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November 2007
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