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American Gangster
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Devils And Dust"
4 stars

Whether he is recreating long-gone eras virtually from scratch with his obsessive eye for period detail (as he demonstrated in “The Duelists,” “Gladiator” and “Kingdom Of Heaven”) or offering us utterly convincing visions of the future that may be in store for us (as seen in “Alien” and “Blade Runner”), Ridley Scott has always had his greatest success as a filmmaker when he has been able to plunge viewers into lavishly realized worlds that they have never seen before. However, when he is trying to tell a story where such innovations don’t exist–either the stories take place in contemporary times or are set in an era that has been depicted by other filmmakers–that advantage disappears and he is forced to live or die solely on the strength of the material he is bringing to life. When said material is strong (such as “Thelma & Louise,” “Black Hawk Down” and the sadly underrated “Hannibal”), the result is usually a good movie that nevertheless isn’t quite as overwhelming as his glimpses into the past or the future. When the material is weak (“Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Black Rain,” “A Good Year”), the results can be fairly dreadful. In the case of his latest work, the crime epic “American Gangster,” the end results are closer to the former path than the latter–it is a well-made and reasonably exciting work filled with juicy performances, exciting set-pieces and a slick visual style, but there is very little on display here that we haven’t already seen before in one form or another.

Based on a true story (one that was chronicled in a story in “New York” magazine by Mark Jacobsen), “American Gangster” tells the story of the rise and fall of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). When we first encounter him on the streets of Harlem in 1968, he is serving as the driver, enforcer and general aide-de-camp of a local crime figure who is respected and feared in the neighborhood but who was never allowed to advance any further by the criminal power structure that kept him in his place. When his mentor passes on and creates a power vacuum in his wake, Frank decides to step into his shoes and build his own criminal empire. Unlike his competitors, Frank has a strict business ethic that he adheres to that allows him to succeed where others fail. He also has something else that his competitors don’t have–access to a supply of heroin that he is able to smuggle into America direct from Vietnam (utilizing the coffins of dead American soldiers) and sell on the street in doses pure enough and cheap enough to undercut the competition. Before too long, he leaves such competitors as fellow drug kingpin Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr) in the dust while creating an organization so powerful that even a local Mafia kingpin (Armand Assante) wants to do business with him.

Despite Frank’s best efforts to keep a low profile so as not to attract attention to himself and his business (“The loudest one in the room is the weakest”), a fur coat given to him by his wife, former Miss Puerto Rico Eva (Lymari Nadal), not to mention the prime seats he scores for a championship boxing match (even better than the ones taken by known high-ranking criminals), attracts the attention of dedicated cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). A pariah in his precinct for finding a million bucks in untraceable cash while on a stakeout with his partner and turning every cent of it in (signifying that he is the kind of incorruptible do-gooder that no self-respecting cop on the take would want to work with), he has been charged with heading up a drug task force in conjunction with President Nixon’s war on drugs. At first, even the tireless and obsessed Richie can’t get anything on Frank and he isn’t helped much by the presence of the thoroughly corrupt Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin, who is content to let things continue as they are as long as he gets his (un)fair share of the proceeds. However, Richie gets lucky when Frank hits upon a series of setbacks–one of his cousins gets busted and agrees to wear a wire, a dust-up with Trupo and the unexpected end of his ingenious shipping program with the end of U.S. military activity in Vietnam–that finally land him behind bars.

Although the specific details are undeniably interesting, there is a certain air of familiarity that hovers over most of “American Gangster.” After all, thanks to such films as “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “Carlito’s Way,” obsessively detailed 1970's-era crime sagas are not exactly the rarest commodity on the big screen and even though it has been impressively mounted, you can’t quite shake the feeling that you have seen it all before, Scott, working from a screenplay by Steve Zaillian, does a good job of capturing the look and feel of the story but what he presents us with is virtually indistinguishable from what people like Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann or Brian De Palma have done in the past. He never finds a way to transcend the material in the same way that he has done in many of his other films–instead of plunging into the material with zeal, he gives us a somewhat detached take that robs it of a certain immediacy. Part of the problem may come from the fact that unlike his other films, which have generally had one central character that he wants us to follow along with, “American Gangster”tries to give equal weight to both Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts and even with a 160-minute running time, there just isn’t enough time to fully deal with both of them–the constant ping-ponging between the two causes the film to lack the focus and clarity that it might have had if he had just picked one of them to concentrate on.

Luckily for the film, it is easy to overlook these flaws–at least while you are sitting in the theater–because of the happy distraction caused by the powerhouse performances delivered by virtually the entire cast. As Frank Lucas, Denzel Washington perfectly captures the blend of offhand charm and steely-eyed determination that the real-life character must have had in order to succeed in his business to the degree that he did–in that regard, he blows his fairly overrated turn in “Training Day”out of the water with his work here. In the less flashy role of Richie Roberts, Russell Crowe more than holds his own and even though it seems at time as though a lot of material pertaining to his character was dropped at some point (subplots involving his incessant womanizing and his strained relationships with his ex-wife, played by Carla Gugino, and young son are virtually ignored the moment that they are introduced), he gives us a character who is just as quiet and obsessive in his determination to succeed in his chosen profession as his opponent is at his. As a result, when the two finally go head-to-head in the same scene after a couple of hours of screen time, a la Pacino and De Niro in “Heat” (though not quite since Crowe and Washington already played off of each other before in the deathless sci-fi turkey “Virtuosity”) the fireworks that erupt as a result are more than worth the wait. Among the enormous supporting cast, the standouts include Armand Assante, who gets a lot of mileage out of his brief scenes as the silky-smooth mob boss, Cuba Gooding Jr., who makes up for some of his questionable choices of late in his appearance as rival drug pusher Nicky Barnes and Josh Brolin as the irredeemably sleazy and corrupt detective. (Between his work here and his brilliant performance in “No Country For Old Men,” Brolin is set to be the breakout star of the season.) The only ones who come up short, perhaps not surprisingly, are the women–as Frank’s wife, Lymari Nadal isn’t asked to do much more than look gorgeous (which she does pull off admirably) while Ruby Dee’s turn as Frank’s old-mammy mother sticks her with some of the film’s weakest moments.

Although it is not the great American crime film that it is clearly straining to be right from its portentous title, “American Gangster” is still an exciting and well-made bit of genre filmmaking that is anchored by two solid lead performances and a gallery of equally compelling supporting ones. As I said, the overriding problem of the film is the fact that there is very little here that we haven’t seen before and as a result, it lacks the punch of the best crime films or of Ridley Scott’s finest work. That isn’t to say that it isn’t worth watching–the sheer craftsmanship of the material and the performances from Washington and Crowe are enough to make it worth a look–but those expecting it to be some kind of modern masterpiece are most likely going to come away from it disappointed. I’ll put it this way–if you can see only one Ridley Scott film in a theater this weekend, you should make it “Blade Runner–The Ultimate Cut.” However, if you have time for two, or if you are not in a city where “Blade Runner” is being reissued, then feel free to give “American Gangster” a try.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15748&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/02/07 01:13:50
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell solid true crime story 4 stars
1/14/10 Samantha P great acting, this movie has a great look to it 4 stars
12/26/09 Jeff Wilder The story's nothing new. But Scott's direction and Washington and Crowe make it quite good. 4 stars
7/19/09 RLan More of a three and a half star rating. A decent movie, but nothing special. 4 stars
2/02/09 Matt Wanders at times, could use some trimming, but overall quite engrossing 3 stars
11/11/08 Michael M 2nd half of the movie wasn't suspenseful, but good as a whole, and definitley worth seeing. 3 stars
10/18/08 daveyt not exactly genre busting but v well acted and produced. Expected more visually from Scott 4 stars
10/15/08 Monday Morning Exceeded expectations for pace, storyline, acting. Could have been cut by 1/2 hr. tho. 4 stars
7/16/08 Farnsy Why the hell is Russell Crowe in this movie? 3 stars
6/27/08 Rabbits O Southern Shallow, pretensious rubbish...just saying 1 stars
3/30/08 R.W. Welch A pro piece of work all around -- and mostly true. 4 stars
3/03/08 ladavies No Soul. I did love Josh Brolin and Ruby Dee. 3 stars
2/03/08 Advantus Although not accurate according to Nicky Barnes it was a powerful movie on the drug trade. 4 stars
2/02/08 ad style over substance it is. Cheesy ending 2 stars
1/06/08 reptilesni Denzel sleepwalks through yet another movie. Never lived up to promise shown in Glory. 3 stars
12/17/07 Quigley Good acting, but nothing to get too excited over. Had some gruesome and disturbing scenes 4 stars
12/12/07 William Goss Thoroughly detailed and convincingly acted, but undeniably workmanlike. 3 stars
12/09/07 Wendell Maness Its hard to believe a person of his race could make 250 million- he was a lowlife 4 stars
12/06/07 MP Bartley Engrossing, but we've all been here before. 4 stars
11/28/07 Alice Good acting, good movie. 4 stars
11/18/07 stain amazing 5 stars
11/18/07 Agabus1128 It appears to be a compiltation of several gangster films we have already seen. NJC, GdFthr 3 stars
11/10/07 mr.mike not as gripping as it should have been , and a few unconvincing detours. 3 stars
11/09/07 John Some parts like when he shoots the guy in the head are just plain dumb. 3 stars
11/09/07 Random Black Mafia has always gotten short shrift on its history. This is especially relevant. 5 stars
11/09/07 Jefenator Not a masterpiece but it's a solid, competent film. DW and RC are good. 4 stars
11/08/07 kp too choppy and underdeveloped characters. worst gangster movie i have ever seen. 1 stars
11/05/07 el sordo It's not original, but it is well done 4 stars
11/05/07 Deb A masterpiece, much more original than some critics realize 5 stars
11/04/07 damalc amazing acting from top to bottom, should win sag award for cast 4 stars
11/03/07 D Excellent movie. Best i've seen so far this year. 5 stars
11/03/07 Obi Wan Great movie, great acting....MUST SEE 5 stars
11/02/07 Ole Man Bourbon Really good movie. Not over-the-top silly like many may wish for. 5 stars
11/02/07 action movie fan good acting and atmosphere-but goes nowhere-same thing over and over again-end is good 3 stars
11/02/07 Buttley I smell Oscar nominations! 5 stars
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  02-Nov-2007 (R)
  DVD: 19-Feb-2008



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