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AMERICAN GANGSTER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, RZA, Ruby Dee
Director:  Ridley Scott
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  156 Minutes (Theatrical), 177 Minutes (Extended)
Release Date:  February 19, 2008

“This is my home.  My country.  Frank Lucas don’t run from nobody.  This is America.”

Film ***

So how does an African American man take over the Harlem drug trade from the Mafia in the early 70s?  Guns?  Bombs?  Assassinations?  Sure…but also by using some good old fashioned American business sense and competition.

American Gangster is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Washington), and tells the story of his rise and fall from power in part, while also telling the story of the cop, Ritchie Roberts (Crowe), who eventually brought him down.  The film, directed by Ridley Scott, offers opportunities for complaints and praise.  My qualms are in how much of this kind of story we’ve seen before in other pictures, but what redeems it all is a terrific, taut climax that’s brutal, suspenseful, and satisfying.

Frank Lucas inherits his crime empire from his former boss, and sets about bringing new success to it by focusing on product and price.  Sure, the product is heroin, but like any other business, if you offer a better product at a better price, the money will follow.  Instead of dealing heroin filtered in through the Mafia, where it gets cut and weakened and pricey, he finds an alternative.  There’s a war in Vietnam, and in Vietnam, the drugs are plentiful.  With a family member in the military over there, Frank arranges to buy pure, uncut heroin directly from Asia, concocts a startling way to import it, and even comes up with a brand name of sorts to set his drugs apart from others.

On the other side of the coin is Roberts, a good cop in a corrupt system, who also happens to be studying for a law degree.  Maybe as much as 75 percent of New York’s drug enforcement officers are on the take, but Roberts does the unthinkable when he discovers nearly a million in unmarked bills…and turns it in.  In other words, Roberts is a man with few friends on either side.

I suppose prejudice is another factor in Frank’s rise to success.  The cops are focused on the mobs and other gangs.  It doesn’t occur to them for years that a black man could have carved such a chunk of the Mafia’s power away for himself.  Between this short-sightedness and the fact that so many of his fellow detectives are actually on Lucas’ payroll, Roberts has a difficult task at hand.

Sounds a little like The Departed, and through most of the first half of the movie, I was distracted by thinking about other crime films.  Frank Lucas is prone to sudden acts of violence like Al Capone in The Untouchables, and is frequently seen in church while terrible acts are being carried out for him, a la Michael Corleone in The Godfather.  His attempts to have a normal family life while running his drugs reminded me of Henry Hill in GoodFellas.  Even though American Gangster is a true story, the filmmakers should have known audiences could pick up on such obvious homage.

But when it all comes down at the end, there is redemption.  The climactic sequence involves Roberts and crew descending upon a project housing complex where Frank’s heroin is processed.  It’s well edited and suspenseful, as there are not only bad guys to take out, but innocents to protect.  But perhaps the real climax is the final confrontation between Lucas and Roberts.  With two acting powerhouses like Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, it’s effective that they don’t have a scene together til the very end.  And if you don’t know much about the history of the case, as I did not, the events are striking and surprising.

There is plenty of talent at hand here, between Ridley Scott, writer Steven Zallian, and producer Brian Grazer, not to mention a solid cast (I haven’t even mentioned Ruby Dee’s Oscar nomination or Josh Brolin’s strong turn as a rival cop).  Maybe it’s just too difficult to make an American crime picture today and have it carve out its own unique niche.  The fact that it’s about an African American drug lord is different enough, but a little more focus could have made this into a great film, instead of a merely good one.

Video **1/2

This is a mostly good anamorphic transfer from Universal, but with many shots displayed in either very little light or too much light, there is occasionally noticeable grain and texture, not to mention a bit of compression visible here and there (there are two versions of a long movie on one disc).  Sometimes, it makes the early 70s period feel authentic, but others, it just seems like a bit of technical weakness.

Audio ****

No complaints about the 5.1 audio, which is strong, dynamic, and resourceful.  There are action sequences that kick up the volume and the use of the rear signals, there is music that keeps the subwoofer humming, and dialogue is clear and well-rendered throughout.

Features ***

Disc One contains a commentary for the theatrical version by Ridley Scott and writer Steve Zallian.  Disc Two contains two deleted scenes, including an alternate opening, a making-of documentary, and a “case files” section of three in-depth behind the scenes segments.  The documentary is extremely solid, though the best part is the first segment...a look at the real Ritchie Roberts and Frank Lucas!

Summary:

American Gangster has one major flaw, and that is that it seems to openly reference much better and more groundbreaking crime films.  It’s an effective tale with twists in the details but remaining by-the-numbers in execution for the most part.

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