Posted on 12/02/07 03:46 PM
Director Ridley Scott?s American Gangster has been described as ?The Black Godfather? or a ?Harlem Goodfellas.? However, this analysis stems from a vast ignorance and assumption that all gangster movies are the same. This film is rather a Citizen Kane or a Wall Street, a case study of a businessman. It tells the story of a powerful kingpin named Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the cop trying to bring him down, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).
Lucas knows, as any brilliant businessman does, that if he doesn?t own it all, then he is owned. The result is to cut the mafia out of the Harlem heroin business entirely by bringing a better product to the marketplace. His merchandise, Blue Magic, is bought direct from the supplier in Thailand, and is sold at higher quality for lower prices than the competition.
His heroin may offer crippling addictions to the consumer, but that doesn?t make it a bad product. The people of Harlem love Frank Lucas. He hands out turkeys on Thanksgiving, imitates the Italian style by keeping the business family-run, keeps the police at bay, and takes his mother to church on Sundays. The result is basically a drug version of In-and-Out Burger: family-run, simply yet reliable products and quality costumer service.
On the flip side, Roberts is an upstanding cop who has a bad reputation in the department. He received the bad rap by doing something crazy: he found $1 million of dope money and turned it in. Why would he do something so crazy when he could keep the cash and share with his buddies? Well, Roberts is one of those rare occasions: an honest cop.
Lucas and Roberts, however opposite, essentially share similar values of honesty and integrity. Even when a crooked cop (Josh Brolin) tries to take them down, they stick to their convictions. The difference between the two men is ever so subtle: Roberts simply tells him to screw off, and Lucas blows up his car.
Every performance in the film is quality, from the small right up to Washington and Crowe, who will no doubt be rewarded at the Oscars this year. If the characters were in the hands of any lesser actors, the movie would fall apart. Crowe plays Roberts? honesty as if it were more a burden than anything else. As he slowly but surely builds his case and works towards a law degree in hopes of escaping police work, Lucas lives large and prospers. Washington may be the key to American Gangster, but wouldn?t shine so brightly if not for Crowe?s brilliant counter performance.
Washington?s Lucas is a low-key gangster. Roberts and Co. are having a lot of trouble catching this guy because 1) he lives so under-the-radar and 2) he is a black man in an Italian man?s bid-ness. Lucas doesn?t surround himself with mob bosses or drug peddlers, but rather celebrities and respectable individuals. This guy is a regular chameleon, and it isn?t until he gets a little flashy that the authorities start to figure out the man behind Blue Magic. I imagined Frank Lucas sitting in prison thinking, ?Damn that chinchilla coat. Damn it all to hell.?
While one can draw allusions from American Gangster to all the other gangster films, the film is not The Godfather, and never attempts to be. It may have some powerful references for sure, but never forget that this is not your average gangland flick. The film is not about a crime family or Tony Montana, but rather the rise and inevitable downfall of a powerful businessman.
Tales of powerful people?s implosion is always fascinating, which is why Citizen Kane and Wall Street are bona fide classics of American cinema. That said, Ridley Scott and writer Steve Zaillian (Schindler?s List) have crafted a special film here. American Gangster is bound to become a staple of the gangster movie genre, if nothing else because it offers something a little bit different.
In Storytelling 101, students are taught that there are four types of narratives that draw people in: Rags-to-riches, people coming together, mob at the gates and rot at the top. American Gangster has all of these elements. Frank Lucas could have been the owner of Krispy Kreme ? if that guy had the power to take a man out in the middle of a busy street in broad daylight.