Saturday, January 26, 2008

American Gangster

Year: 2007
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, Ruby Dee, John Hawkes, Lymari Nadal, Cuba Gooding Jr

I'm not that much into gangster films. I haven't even watched any of the Godfather films, or any of Scorsese's flicks on the mob, save for The Departed, which I thought was a little unnecessarily lengthy, but well performed by the cast. Somehow all films about gangsters and mobs made by Hollywood take up more than 2 hours of screen time. Must be a pre-requisite, or a conspiracy. Or some real life mobsters want it that way. Who knows?

Anyway, it's Ridley Scott's turn to make one. The guy who is well known for Alien, Black Hawk Down and Gladiator presents us the story of real life drug kingpin Frank Lucas. Lucas is portrayed in this film as a ruthless businessman, yet loving to his family. The film also focuses on the policeman that brought Frank to justice: Ritchie Roberts. Scott picks the best two actors for the job: Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

American Gangster begins in New York 1969, where we see Frank Lucas working as black crime boss Bumpy Johnson's driver and bodyguard. When Bumpy suddenly dies, Frank takes his place as head of the organisation, using everything he learnt from his mentor to run the show. Frank however wanted to do better than his boss. He wanted to get ahead of everyone in the gangster community, specifically in the drug trade. So he goes to Vietnam, at the time when American soldiers are there fighting the war, makes a deal with the local manufacturers and finds a way to ship it back to the States. Then he sells it at a lower price than his peers, and purer quality too.

His latest move up the street crime ladder raises some eyebrows on both sides of the law, but he manages to either buy them off, or kill them off. He gets his brothers to join the business and buys a mansion for his mother, and becomes the family man that everyone respects. Despite his ruthless and sometimes violent business tactics, people in his organisation love him, because of his honesty. As he says to them "The most important thing in business is honesty."

Then there is Detective Ritchie Roberts, a white cop who does his best to be honest at his job, but not because he is a good man deep down. He does it to balance out the dishonest things he does, like cheating on his wife. His life isn't an easy one, as he goes through a messy divorce with his wife and gets shunned by his colleagues for turning in a large sum of money he found to his superiors. They can't trust him because they are corrupt.

His boss finally finds Ritchie a task he can do without the hassle of bureaucracy and unreliable comrades. He lets Ritchie head his own task force to bust the drug trade. So Ritchie gathers a team and starts spying the streets, and comes across Frank Lucas.

Ridley Scott has done a tremendous job yet again. I admire how the guy takes his time in telling his story, and not make it look like it's taking way too long. He is elaborate and thorough, and he gets the best performances from his cast. The look of the film, set in 1970s New York is very authentic too. Steven Zaillian writes a good screenplay as well, balancing the two main characters of Frank and Ritchie effectively.

Washington of course, doesn't disappoint in his performance as Frank Lucas. Despite playing his roles with a sense of familiarity, he never goes out of style, or end up being boring. Denzel is a force of nature, and he dominates the film. Crowe on the other hand, gets the slightly smaller lead role as Ritchie, but still makes his presence felt. He may have been eclipsed by Denzel here, but he shines in every scene he's in. The supporting cast members also do well, from Ruby Dee, who plays Frank's mother, to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Frank's brother, to John Hawkes as Ritchie's partner, to Josh Brolin as the corrupt Detective Trupo.

I remember the last time Washington and Crowe faced off against each other in a film. It was in the action film Virtuosity, where action takes precedence over performance. Well executed at the time, but not remembered by most. In here, they don't meet until the last 15 minutes, and their verbal sparring is quite impressive. Perhaps my favourite scene in the entire film.

It's an excellent gangster flick, less theatrical than The Departed. Highly recommended. (4/5)

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