Dir: Ridley Scott. US. 2007. 158 mins
A classy gangster epic which echoes the best crime sagas of the last 35 years from The Godfather saga to New Jack City, American Gangster marks a welcome return to form for hard-working director Ridley Scott after three disappointing films. Long but never boring, it's an expertly crafted slice of mainstream entertainment telling two concurrent stories, one about the rise of drug kingpin played by Denzel Washington, one about the police investigation to bring him down led by a grizzled cop played by Russell Crowe.
Adult audiences will be enthralled by the drama, not least because it is based on the true story of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas in the 1970s and his eventual arrest by dogged cop Richie Roberts. Blessed by the rich detail and spot-on casting for which Scott is famous, the film is destined to be a big hit at the box office in North America but also in international territories where the star names and perennial fascination with New York City crime stories will bring in the crowds.
Awards play is also possible for the film which is one of the few large-scale major Hollywood productions - the film boasts 130 speaking parts - on offer this season. Rather like Scott's Gladiator and Scorsese's The Departed last year, its sheer entertainment value and the top-level craft on show might steer Academy voters to favour it. The performances, particularly another powerful turn by Washington, are also noteworthy.
There are echoes here of Michael Mann's Heat (!995), which also told parallel stories of criminal and cop on his trail, although this story is true and all the more colorful for being so.
The film begins with the death of popular Harlem crime boss Bumpy Johnson of a heart attack in 1968; his trusty driver and lieutenant Frank Lucas (Washington) takes over his turf and, faced with competition from other thugs who step into the breach, comes up with a brilliant idea to seize power. He flies to Bangkok where his cousin is stationed during the Vietnam War and the two of them establish their own source of pure heroin in southeast Asia. The drugs are transported to the US in US military planes and distributed around Harlem at a cost-effective price in packets marked 'Blue Magic'.
Enter Richie Roberts (Crowe), a New Jersey cop unpopular for his rigidly honest ways in a police force rife with corruption. When his partner dies of a drug overdose and nobody else will work with him, Roberts is assigned to assemble his own team and focus on the exploding drug problems in the city.
Frank's import business takes off and he assumes power in Harlem as Blue Magic sweeps through the streets. He buys a mansion for his North Carolina-based mother (Dee) and brings his brothers (led by his brother Huey played by Ejiofor) to Manhattan to run the business with him. His mantra is discretion at all costs, unlike other flashy gangsters on the street like Nicky Barnes (Gooding). He meets a beautiful former beauty queen from Puerto Rico called Eva (Nadal) and the two marry. He goes to church every Sunday. In all but profession, he is an upstanding citizen.
Roberts on the other hand is a mess; his marriage (to Gugino) is falling apart and she is moving to Vegas with their son; he sleeps around, and lives and breathes his job. Just as he is reaching a dead-end in search for the mysterious supplier of Blue Magic, Lucas inadvertently shows himself up at the Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier boxing match of 1971. Roberts starts to look into Lucas and begins to suspect that he has found the kingpin.
Things come to a head when the Vietnam war ceasefire is called in 1974 and Lucas's guaranteed supply is threatened. He does one more run to Thailand, this time smuggling the drugs back in the coffins of army veterans killed in action. Roberts infiltrates the Lucas inner circle and gets the information about when, where and how the shipment will arrive in the US. But he still cannot pin the crimes on Lucas until he has located the centre where Lucas' team chops and bags the goods.
Washington is restrained and self-possessed as Lucas, only occasionally fuelled by murderous rage and, since he's never a drug-user, never resorting to Tony Montana-style histrionics. Crowe is the perfect foil for the other half of the film, scrappy and damaged, but with the same determination of his unknown nemesis Lucas. Their meeting at the end of the film is predictably satisfying, especially since Roberts persuades Lucas to identify a plethora of corrupt cops. 75% of the force working in narcotics at the time were indicted as a result.
The story, as superbly scripted by Steve Zaillian, is rife with predictably murky morals, especially since the police force of the time is so immoral. If Lucas comes across as supercool and sometimes heroic, that is because many of the cops here - personified by Josh Brolin as corrupt detective Trupo - were on the take or violently racist.
Much of the pleasure of the film comes from Scott's brisk and businesslike pacing and seemingly effortless confidence with his camera which makes the 158 minute-running time fly by; and within that fast-paced drama there are a multitude of tasty supporting parts (Ruby Dee as Frank's apparently naïve mother, Idris Elba running the team of naked girls who chop and bag the dope) montages and setpieces.
American Gangster may not possess the mythology of The Godfather or the technical audacity of Goodfellas, but it has substance aplenty, a sense of humour and the power to entertain which mark it out as one of the year's most rewarding pictures.
Scott Free Productions
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Director of photography
Cuba Gooding Jr