American Gangster is a formidable piece of work, not to mention director Ridley Scott’s finest effort since 2001’s Black Hawk Down. It personifies the genre that many feared extinct in this era of CGI – the gritty cops and gangsters thriller. Stuck in development hell since 2004 and even dropped by Universal Pictures at one point, American Gangster storms onto the screen smack in the middle of the Oscar push – and things are looking good.
The film tells the story of Frank Lucas (Washington), the ringleader of a heroin kingpin in 1970’s Manhattan. What separates Lucas from his competition is that his product is coming straight from Southeast Asia at the height of the Vietnam War – and is being smuggled into the U.S. through fallen soldiers coffins. 100% pure heroin begins hitting the streets of New York, and Lucas’ sudden rise to fame and fortune (he was friends with numerous athletes and celebrities at the time) catches the eye of Richie Roberts, a New York narcotics detective. Gathering evidence on Lucas is no easy task; he lives a relatively quiet life and stays out of the spotlight whenever possible. Furthermore, he has his sizable family involved and they are all running various fronts for the business.
Even at a sizable 157 minutes there is nary a dull moment. Scott’s direction is spot on as he seamlessly conveys both stories whilst developing a host of characters. We understand Lucas’ aspiration to accomplish the American Dream. He’s a no-nonsense dude, even going so far as to gun down a rival in broad daylight in front of a crowd. People bow down to him, knowing of his power. On the other side is the scrappy Roberts, who knows he will need two-faced witnesses if he stands a chance of bringing down Lucas. All of the elements are meshed perfectly, particularly in the film’s final half hour. Things take a surprising turn, but wind down in very satisfying fashion.
Denzel Washington is, as usual, spectacular as Lucas. Mixing a little Alonzo from Training Day with the smooth-talking Frazier from Inside Man, Washington plays Lucas as one of the classiest, most brutal drug lords in history. He values family and yearns to take care of his brothers, but can also be smashing a guy’s head in a piano seconds later. Washington nails it down to the slightest facial tick. Russell Crowe matches him step for step as Roberts, a likable guy whose impending divorce only motivates him further. A scene in which Roberts interrogates Lucas exemplifies the kind of talent on display. Superb supporting work is turned in by Josh Brolin and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a rival cop and Lucas brother, respectively.
American Gangster is good old-fashioned knuckles-to-the-jaw entertainment, and the fact that it’s a true story and the real-life Lucas and Roberts contributed significantly to only increases its potency. Ridley Scott, when at the top of his game, is one of the premiere directors in Hollywood. Here he is, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if, come springtime, there are a few envelopes addressed to this very film.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 157 Minutes
Rating: R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.
Theatrical Release: November 2, 2007
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine