I think it is a safe statement to say that most people, like myself, appreciate a movie that depicts a person or persons rising to the top of the food chain by perseverance, hard work and some smarts, even if their profession is less than honorable. Ridley Scott (best known for Black Hawk Down and Gladiator) seems to agree with my assumption because he’s back behind the directors chair telling the real-life tale of a two-bit hustler turned drug kingpin in American Gangster.
The story is about the life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a street savvy guy who rose to power in the heroin trade in New York City during the late 60’s and early 70’s and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) an incorruptible police officer trying to stop him. Similar stories have been told before – Scarface and Serpico come to mind – but American Gangster takes a stab at combining both plots while delving deeper into the characters and the personal implications of their choices.
To start, both characters sacrifice their families for personal gain. For Frank Lucas, his desire to live the life of a prominent white man (he’s black by the way), supercedes everything. He taints his honest, hardworking Southern family by recruiting them into his criminal organization. He enlists the help of his cousin Nate (Roger Guenveur Smith) in Vietnam to coordinate the shipment of pure heroin into the states and his four brothers to become the key distributors in the tri-state area. For Richie Roberts, he’s left his wife and son on the back burner while he feverishly tries to keep drugs off of the streets, root out corruption on the police force and study for his bar exam. Both of them think they are acting for the greater good even though they are destroying all that keeps them honest and grounded.
And while American Gangster doesn’t reinvent the genre, watching these two central figures try and stay afloat amongst all the flotsam and jetsam was worth the cost of admission. Denzel Washington, who is probably one of the best actors alive today, is exceptional as Frank Lucas. It was bewildering to watch him switch between brutal gangster and family man on a moments notice. And it’s all done with the same mannerisms you and I would have while talking to a friend on the phone about a trivial occurrence – calm, collected and cool. For him there is no difference between setting a man on fire and shooting him in cold blood or taking his mother to church every Sunday. Russell Crowe isn’t a slouch by any means either. His depiction of a man caught between a rock and a hard place was equally effective. It’s hard to fathom that 75% of the police force was corrupt in those days and that being honest meant you’re a target by your peers as well as the criminals. It was painful to watch him try to hold onto his friends and family even though he knew in his heart he couldn’t keep them.
I should also mention that the set and art departments for this movie put on a great production. Capturing the look and feel of an early 1970’s New York City can’t be an easy task, but these guys and gals made it look very realistic (I especially liked the little VW assigned to Crowe). There are some great supporting characters throughout too. Josh Brolin as the corrupt Detective Trupo, Armand Assante as the unhappy mobster Dominic Cattano and Cuba Gooding Jr. as fellow street hustler Nicky Barnes all add some compelling moments to the mixture and should be applauded for their work (especially Cuba since he’s done some horrible work recently).
The lone drawback to American Gangster is it is damn near three hours long (as are most of Ridley’s better movies). There are plenty of scenes that should have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s the classic case of not knowing what was or wasn’t needed to make the film work. The incident with Richie and his partner Javier (John Ortiz) didn’t need so much air time. Neither did all the courtroom drama or family dinners and parties. The scaling back or elimination of these scenes would have allowed for more emphasis on what I thought was a rather weak ending. I felt the finale was anticlimactic – it almost seemed like the writer (Steven Zaillian) suddenly realized he needed a way to end the film so he just patched something on.
That notwithstanding, American Gangster is a well told drama. Even though it does lose focus now and again, it never loses sight of the prize. And although I doubt it will happen, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are nominated for their roles by the Academy.