American Gangster Reviews

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½ December 26, 2007
In my mind, there are really two types of movies. Those that, given infinite amounts of time and practice, I could make as well or better than the movie that exists, and those I couldn't. [u]American Gangster[/u] is one of those rare films that falls into the latter category.

It's kind of a biopic of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the Harlem crime boss who ran the heroin trade after the death of his mentor, Bumpy Johnson, and the story of the man who brought him down, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Lucas is a bold and intelligent man who comes to power in the late '60's / early '70's by cashing in on the influx of illegal drugs from Vietnam, while his foil struggles with his own inner demons while pulled along by his one good trait: that he's not a dirty cop. His claim to fame is having turned down a million dollars in dirty money en route to becoming a cop, then DEA agent, then lawyer while his personal life falls apart around him. He obsessively chases Lucas in an attempt to destroy the New York drug trade, while Lucas obsessively tries to hold onto as much power as he can. We see the two stories in parallel, two dual character studies crossed with a crime story and a police procedural in a way that's distinctly fascinating. And this is why I give this movie so much credit.

The screenplay for this movie is clever, really really clever. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another movie like this. Whereas a lesser film would have Crowe's character making speech after speech about bringing down Lucas, driving home the theme of obsession while Lucas similarly curses the ground Roberts walks on, this movie develops both characters completely, showing that they have one important trait in common: drive. They literally are flip sides of the same coin, but instead of pitting them against each other directly, the movie instead chooses to profile each man in depth, simultaneously, until circumstances bring their two stories together. It's really well done, and again, not like anything I've seen before.

More than that, though, this is a true Ridley Scott film, of the type I could never do, but am in total awe of. Scott develops everything slowly, which is why I avoided this movie for so long and why I take off a point, and yet, develops every idea so completely that he sucks you in and pulls you along. Every detail of how these men do what they do is here, and it's fascinating. It holds your attention. In other words, it's slow, but far from boring, because Scott, as usual, simmers everything to a boiling point. He does this better than any other modern filmmaker, and I'm envious.

And the use of these two actors to play these two roles is truly inspired. My first significant impression of this film was in Denzel Washington's first two shots where it dawned on me how expressive Denzel's face is. I think most people respond to the quality of his voice and his good looks, but seeing him here it's really more than that. There's more emotion and character in Denzel's face than most other actors I can think of. I have to confess, I'm actually not that big on Russell Crowe, and heard his accent slip ever so slightly here and there, but that rough quality of his works well for the complexity of his character. Roberts is a hero, but not a saint, and has to reconcile with himself before he can impress us. Crowe plays this whole conflict out perfectly, and as a result, I have to admit he was well cast.

But again, the real winner here is the screenplay. The two stories are interwoven in a good order without being gimmicky. Again, a lesser film would have had a scene for one, and then essentially either the same or complementary scene following it from the other guy. This story cuts between the two by deciding when to cut from one story to the other, and both of them are fully told and interesting. And the details of the plot are absolutely fascinating - Lucas's story is more emotionally compelling, while Roberts's is intellectually challenging, and both of them totally engage you. I loved the dialogue, the pacing, the plotting - I just loved how this movie was written, and like I said, I'm jealous.

It's a really good movie. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did.
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