American Gangster: A Review

Ridley Scott Takes a Shot at a Gangster Epic in His Latest Outing

With the directorial talents of Ridley Scott and superb performances from Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, “American Gangster,” based on the real-life rise and fall of one of New York’s most infamous drug lords of the 1970s, Frank Lucas, comes close to achieving the same greatness as “Goodfellas” or “The Godfather.” Though lacking the small details and signature moments that could have elevated it to a legendary status, “American Gangster” is an engaging film.

The movie shifts between the intertwining stories of Lucas and his nemesis, detective Richie Roberts. Washington stars as Lucas, who amasses a powerful heroin empire through an efficient business model. Traveling to Vietnam in 1968 to by pure heroin straight from the source, Lucas pays off I.S. army officers to smuggle the rugs into America and then undercuts fellow drug dealers by selling his product at a fraction of the cost. By staying low and out of sight, Lucas quickly scales the organized crime hierarchy, soon controlling a significant portion of the New York heroin trade while operating beneath the radar of corrupt law enforcement officials.

Meanwhile, Crowe plays Roberts, a strait-laced New Jersey cop, an outcast in his own department for his oddly judicious ways. He is tapped by the government to head his own drug enforcement team in an attempt to quell a surge in drug trafficking. After months of fruitless searching, Roberts finally pinpoints Lucas as the main perpetrator, beginning a cat-and-mouse game. Roberts works to convince his skeptical superiors that a little-known black gangster is running the streets while Lucas struggles to maintain order and control over his expanding network.

With two Academy Awards between them, Washington and Crowe give electric performances that make “American Gangster” worth seeing. Although the two don’t appear onscreen together until halfway through the movie and do not interact until the end, both carry their respective sequences. Washington in particular gives one of the most dynamic performances of his career. His portrayal of Lucas may go down as one of the most intimidating crime bosses since Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” Washington certainly channels the quiet intensity of Vito Corleone, delivering his lines in a raspy baritone growl, able to convey rage and a murderous intent without raising his voice. Washington has also mastered the art of the brooding stare, cutting a fearsome figure with his dark eyes and expressionless features, leaving viewers quaking in fear.

As the foil to Lucas, Crowe plays a man on a mission to take down his nemesis. Crowe provides emotional depth to his role, portraying the rough-edged, down-on-his-luck guy posed to finally get a break, reminiscent of his previous work in “Gladiator” and “Cinderella Man.”

For an R-rated crime thriller lasting over the two-and-a-half hour mark, “American Gangster” has a surprisingly low body count. Aside from a man being burned alive in the opening sequence, the film showcases perhaps a handful of scenes of violence, none overly graphic in nature.

Instead of the often heavy-handed, jerky storylines used in modern crime thrillers, “American Gangster” is filmed smoothly and intercut with scenic shots of the grimy streets of Harlem and New Jersey. Scott is thoughtful in his timing, moving the film along quickly enough to never get weighed down by a subplot, yet adding enough story to keep the audience thinking throughout.

Though “American Gangster” seems to have all the pieces to achieve crime drama greatness, it lacks the lasting impact of “The Godfather” or “Pulp Fiction.” Although the film enjoys a nice buildup and maintains a taut atmosphere through most of the story, “American Gangster” lacked the frenzied climax or signature moment that sums up the entire movie. There is no particular section of the movie that will blow one’s mind, no memorable quotes nor action scenes. And thus the movie ends with viewers wanting to find the scene that will keep them talking for days.

“American Gangster” is a solid movie, a no-nonsense, entertaining flick running on strong acting performances. Though not lasting enough to reach the top shelf of gangster movies, it is a satisfying effort good enough to be top dog on the movie block for a while.