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Movie Review: American Gangster

American Gangster
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Steven Zaillian from the article by Mark Jacobson

Ridley Scott is probably the most prolific 70-year-old director you’ll ever come across.  He has more output than most directors period.  And, almost by rule, that means he comes out with good films and bad films in equal measure.  His last one, A Good Year, fell on the bad side for me.

American Gangster is one of those can’t-miss Oscar pics should it make the money it is expected to make.  With Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington bringing their considerable weight to the table, the movie was already going to be halfway good.  Could Ridley Scott push it further?

It’s the late sixties, early seventies, and Frank Lucas (Washington) has learned a great many things from his mentor and Harlem OG Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), and like all good businessmen he does his homework.  After Bumpy dies, a thriving drug trade is left to the underlings to hash out.  The heroin on the street is less than half pure, mainly due to dirty cops stealing the dope, cutting it up, and redistributing it back to the original sellers.  Soldiers in Vietnam are reporting that the heroin out there is incredible.  Frank devises a plan to get it out and into Harlem, selling pure heroin at half the price.

He eventually brings his brothers (notably Huey, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) from Greenboro, North Carolina into the business.  He buys his mother (Ruby Dee) a mansion.  And yes, he also meets his bride-to-be, Eva (Lymari Nadal).

He has his rivals.  Tango (Idris Elba) is his chief competition after Bumpy dies, and another flamboyant Harlem drug dealer is on the rise, Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr., finally in something legitimate).  There’s also the matter of mob bosses like Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante).  When his plan works and he becomes extremely wealthy, undermining everyone else out on the street, he becomes a target.

But not just to gangsters.  Up-and-coming cop Richie Roberts (Crowe) is honest, too honest if you ask his peers.  In an early sting operation with his partner, he runs across nearly a million dollars cash and instead of doing the “respectable” cop thing and keeping it, he does the noble thing and turns it in.  This kind of honesty has made him unpopular in the dirty DEA, and he suddenly can’t be trusted by anybody who might want to work with him.  So he decides to work with the District Attorney’s (Ted Levine) office and rounds up a group of streetwise “deputies” to try to bring down huge drug kingpins.

He’s got other problems, though.  He’s taking night classes to try and pass the Bar Exam, and he’s got a pending divorce from his wife Laurie (Carla Gugino), and his work is being questioned as a safe thing for his kid to be around.  And it looks like he’s not only going to have to contend with the rising power of Lucas, but some very powerful, very dirty, cops led by Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin, in a year where he may have the old Oscar rule of two strong performances equals a nomination with this and No Country for Old Men).

The plot is complex, but not over anyone’s head.  It’s exciting to watch how the different players become entangled into this big crime saga.  Scott does a good job of keeping it focused, and Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe turn in performances that are great because they aren’t too showy.  It would have been easy for Washington to get into that Training Day mode for this film, all seething anger, ready to blow.  He keeps it cool until it’s necessary to get to the trademark Washington bark.  And Crowe’s character Richie is so likable, better also for being played understated.

So its about 80% on its way to being amazing.  If I had a gripe, it’s that Ridley Scott doesn’t pump his scenes with any real style.  It’s likely any respectable director could have made this decent, and all the actors come to play (I’d like to mention Crowe’s team, especially John Hawkes as his right hand man Freddie and RZA as Moses Jones).  And old pro Steven Zaillian wrote a great screenplay.  If it could have just oomphed a bit with some thoughtful camerawork and editing, this might have been just incredible.  As is, it’s very good and worth watching.  

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