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American Gangster   B

Universal Pictures / Imagine Entertainment

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, Clarence Williams III, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, RZA, Lymari Nadal, Yul Vazquez, Ruby Dee.

Review by Rob Vaux

There's a line from Ian Fleming's overtly racist 1954 James Bond novel Live and Let Die which has bearing on American Gangster. "The Negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions: scientists, doctors, writers. It's about time they turned out a great criminal." He was speaking about his supervillain Mr. Big, but he might have easily been referring to Frank Lucas, the real-life heroin kingpin who ruled Harlem during the first half of the 1970s. As portrayed by Denzel Washington (in another dazzling performance we've come to take for granted), Lucas views dope as a business like any other. He applies capitalistic principles to his product -- making it better and selling it cheaper than the competition -- and uses the profits to leverage respect from his peers. He doesn't make waves, he never draws attention to himself, and when trouble comes calling, he meets it firmly and permanently. He succeeds, in part, because nobody believes a black man could be so clever. And beneath such bigoted preconceptions, he grows ever stronger: laughing at how badly the rest of the world underestimates him.

It's hardly virgin territory -- the minority figure who uses crime to take what society will not give him -- and director Ridley Scott makes no bones about using well-established blueprints to frame his underworld epic. American Gangster has drawn apt comparisons to gritty '70s cop pictures like Serpico and The French Connection, which it directly emulates both in its steely washed-out visuals and its world of institutional corruption. It even makes mention of the famous Connection drug bust, appropriated here by dirty cops who sell its seized narcotics back on the streets they're supposed to protect. It's a broken, despairing universe endemic of another era: made fresh again by our current global woes and restored to prominence with a little cinematic fine-tuning.

That tuning provides the film's greatest assets, allowing it to overcome an essentially recycled nature. While Scott paints Lucas in slightly transgressive terms -- punishing him for his sins less harshly than expected and wryly pointing out the viewer's complicity in his wrongdoing -- he still follows the usual pattern of unethical ascent and righteous destruction. This becomes doubly true with the presentation of a counterweight: Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the ubiquitous good cop in the bad town who struggles through an ocean of compromise and indifference to bring Lucas to justice. Scott indulges in expected juxtapositions between predator and prey, as Lucas wallows in extravagancy while Roberts eats takeout and tuna fish during cramped stakeouts in the rain. It works here both because of the style with which Scott applies his craft, and in the expert way he capitalizes on his leads. Crowe is perhaps the only actor working today who can match Washington's sheer dominance of the screen. Like the protagonists in Heat, the two never meet save in a late-inning spar between cups of coffee, but both so thoroughly impose their will on the proceedings that the constant shuttle between them costs the film nothing in terms of energy or intensity.

Similar trump cards keep American Gangster from swerving completely into the derivative, ranging from Lucas' unique means of doing business (he smuggles the drugs via the military in Vietnam, his key associates are all family members, etc.) to the playful ways in which Steven Zaillian's script avoids potential pitfalls (Lucas' wife Eva, played by Lymari Nadal, is unusually cognizant of where her husband gets his money). Scott evokes the period less through the shopworn practice of musical cues than in images from background television sets, where war footage and the Ali-Frasier fight quietly punctuate the dramatic themes in front of us.

Not only do such devices help maintain a sharp pace through two and a half hours, but Scott's auteurial stamp lends the film a badly needed sense of distinction. Once again, the director shows us a decent man (Roberts) confronted with his own shortcomings and forced to operate within a system that isn't worthy of his integrity. Washington's antagonist grimly forges an alternate path, equally troubling, but at least of his own making. American Gangster knows how to deliver their story in slick, entertaining terms, which Scott puckishly bedevils by fudging the traditional comeuppance for his criminal antihero. Are we expected to admire Lucas in ways we wouldn't admire, say, Michael Corleone? The question plagues the film's final chapters: problematic, to be sure, but also providing a level of complexity that few would expect from a more workmanlike production. That's what a great director can do, even for a project that may not rank among his best. Scorsese rode a similar piece all the way to the Oscars last year; American Gangster might give its long-ignored helmsman a chance to reenact the feat.

Review published 11.02.2007.

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