Academy Award winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe portray one Harlem’s most notorious crime bosses and the outcast cop who pursues him, respectively, ultimately leading to a climactic confrontation that alters the destiny of an entire generation in New York City. Directed by Ridley Scott and produced by Brian Grazer and Scott, American Gangster boasts an all-star cast including Josh Brolin, Ruby Dee, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, Armand Assante, Carla Gugino, and popular rap artists Common, RZA and Tip “T.I.” Harris.
In American Gangster, seasoned veteran director Ridley Scott, who is famous for such modern epics as Blade Runner and Gladiator, tries his hand, this time, at the modern urban epic. Enlisting Hollywood heavyweights Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, Scott tells the parallel stories of honest New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Crowe) and Harlem drug cartel Frank Lucas (Washington). The film begins by essentially throwing the viewer into the events that led to the motivation and characteristics that would define the two main characters of the film. As Scott jumped back and forth between the lives of Lucas and Roberts it seemed that, perhaps, American Gangster would be a bit of a chore to follow and would require a fully engrossed audience to full digest and process the progression. The film soon found a steady rhythm and began its seamless unraveling the intersecting stories of Lucas and Roberts.
Based on its own merits, the film is engaging, entertaining and wonderfully acted. However, when compared to such modern gangster classics as The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Once Upon a Time in America, the viewer is left feeling that the film lacked a certain incendiary quality that characterized the aforementioned films. Crowe and Washington seem to fit into their roles like a pair of well-worn Italian-make boots. Washington commandingly delivers with his trademark bombast and intensity in portraying Lucas, while Crowe utilizes his skill in portraying the perpetually down-on-his luck martyr who must fight the good fight in the face of rampant. widespread corruption within the ranks of New York area law enforcement. As the film unfolds, Crowe’s character, who is plagued throughout the movie for his having turned in nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills he discovered in the back of a crooked cop’s car, emerges as the more interesting in comparison to Washington’s routine portrayal of your friendly neighborhood crime boss.
The cannon of modern-day classic gangster flicks is large by any measure and American Gangster‘s unfortunate fate will be getting lost in a sea of Carlitos, Serpicos and Scarfaces. But, again, based on its own merits, Ridley Scott provides the viewer with a stylized, thoroughly entertaining look at crime, drug abuse and corruption in late ’60s/early ’70s Harlem. The evolution of Crowe’s character is certainly the most interesting part of the film and, although the film was based on a true story, I couldn’t help but wonder how accurately the character of Frank Lucas presented by Scott. On the one hand Lucas is painted in the light of a family man and robin hood type crusader, fighting for the inhabitants of Harlem and, on the flip side, as a ruthless crime boss who is motivated solely by building and maintaining his own, personal, empire even at the obvious peril of his own brethren. In the end, American Gangster was enjoyable from start to finish and is sure to appeal to viewers well-versed in the classic gangster flicks of the last 30 years and novices to the genre alike.
Review by Noah Brown