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Overall Rating

Awesome: 10.61%
Worth A Look59.09%
Average: 25.76%
Pretty Bad: 1.52%
Total Crap: 3.03%

5 reviews, 36 user ratings

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American Gangster
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by Erik Childress

"So Rappers Finally Have A Scarface Of Their Very Own?"
4 stars

That infamous line between cops and criminals, the co-dependency of one not existing without the other has been explored through both fiction and biography. Most notably in the films of Michael Mann (Manhunter, Heat), not only is the psychology explored but the unstoppable force and the immovable object split the screen time thus all men are created equal. After a troubled start to its production, American Gangster could have its own dichotomy between the styles (and quality) of original director Antoine Fuqua and that of Ridley Scott who took over after escalating budgets and creative differences forced Universal to shut the film down. The flashy African-American vs. the Englishman-of-action no stranger to epic metaphors of Americaís contribution to history and society. Hence the tale of Ď70s drug kingpin, Frank Lucas, is a natural fit for Scott to flip the thaumatrope of both sides of the law and American Gangster is indeed a well-made, well-acted piece right out of the corruption tales of Sidney Lumet. But it remains a foreground treatment that doesnít dig deep enough to exploit the background that could have made this an American crime classic.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) hasnít exactly arisen to the ranks of the Harlem crime world. For years he has been the driver of ďBumpyĒ Johnson (played twice on film each by Moses Gunn in a pair of Shaft features and Laurence Fishburne in The Cotton Club and Hoodlum and now played briefly by Clarence Williams III) who mentored him like a son right up to the moment of his death espousing on the cultural change thatís happening in the late Ď60s. Frank steps up to the plate though, refusing to be bullied by Bumpyís competition, and uses a cousin stationed in Thailand during the war to meet with that nationís heroin smugglers to supply his neighborhood with the highest-quality product at discount prices.

On the other side of the tracks is cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who in true Serpico fashion appears to be the one true blue on the force, typified when along with his partner, turns in a found million bucks on a bust. Providing an unwanted counterpart to the corruption of his fellow officers, Richie also becomes an outsider who is recruited into creating his own task force to make a move against the upswing of Harlem kingpins like Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and the new guy in town whom nobody seems to have any information on (and how could that be?) A new guy who is expanding his empire by recruiting within his own family, led by younger brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and uprooting his poor Southern mama (Ruby Dee) into a glorious mansion in the country.

One of the many elements Frank and Richie have in common is the frequent thorn in the guise of Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), a corrupt cop with his own posse shaking down the criminals for protection like your common mafia and making sure his own people wearing a badge donít get in the way of his withdrawals. Such a big point is made in the filmís editing to reflect the parallel paths of cop and life robber that itís a shame so little of it is played against the greater monstrosity of forces above the both of them. The connection to Vietnam as a societal cancer, coming home if you will in bags great and small never turns the screws on the law enforcement ladder that starts from the beat cop all the way up to the government. Steven Zaillianís screenplay (from Mark Jacobsonís New York Magazine article, ďThe Return of SuperflyĒ) is so caught up reminding us of Richieís boy scout routine (while occasionally tainting it with frequent womanizing and a bad courtroom scene where he confesses to being a bad father) that the film barely has time for the real meat of the story which is only touched upon in the final 20 minutes or so.

The stories of Frank Lucas are probably fleshy enough for a miniseries or certainly a well-examined documentary, an approach already taken on cohort Nicky Barnes in Mr. Untouchable, which sidesteps Frankís contribution to the Harlem underworld and immortalizes Barnes who is seen as a second-rate flash-in-the-pan here. Zaillian and Ridley Scott canít seem to decide and instead force every which way they can into two-and-a-half hours shifting from biography to crime procedural to a final (and singular) confrontation between its protagonists that is merely the starting point for a whole other and ultimately more interesting story about Frankís loyalties and royalties. Not that whatís on screen isnít skillfully assembled into a watchable crime picture. Itís just no more engrossing than your average one.

Ridley Scott has always been best in his element as a visceral director. When it comes down to a conversational tone, anyone who has seen Matchstick Men and A Good Year can attest the uneasy restraint shackling Scott from the overdrive heís used to. And American Gangster is an extremely talky picture. Certainly it accentuates Lucasí occasional outburst of violence, but when the film eventually shifts into action mode (for a terrific sequence detailing a raid on Lucasí operations), it feels more like the other Scott brother was called in to wrap things up before Zaillian somehow made a connection that the two men are really brothers or something else to attract their similar opposites.

This is an American story as the title so brazenly suggests, but what makes it a story about America? Crime? As old as the first settlers. Greed? Even older. No, this goes higher than that and the film isnít quite up to the task of separating it from the pack. Itís overtones are rather simplistic for a screenwriter of Zaillianís talents. As Lucas bucks his own rule of dressing the part, he later recognizes his mistake and burns his clothing in a lesson that will be lost on the bling-bling crowd. The key to the inner depth of what American Gangster fails to get across is the connection to Vietnam. Richie being resisted inspecting the coffins of the fallen; a government whether they admit it or not is implicit in allowing Lucas to rise the ranks and spread his senseless death on the homefront for the countless dollars also brought in by the war itself. When Washington and Crowe finally do have scenes together, thereís an electricity that has been lacking up to that point and the whole ďif you canít beat Ďem, join ĎemĒ theme takes a chokehold before a montage helps to kill the vibe and leave us wondering about what precisely Scott and Zaillian with the filmís final shot. Either this is a man who has seen the warnings of his mentor become reality or one unleashed upon a new generation with nothing left to offer despite a new skirmish breaking out in the Middle East.

All my criticisms of American Gangster may jump you to the conclusion that the film isnít worth seeing. Not true. Itís engrossing and well-paced for 149 minutes (sans credits), but your expectations should be adjusted that youíre seeing little more than a solid workmanlike effort, one maybe better than what Fuqua would have delivered, but certainly not by much. Denzel has the necessary intensity for the role, but is maybe too classy an actor to fully convince us of Lucasí overall legacy in gangster history. The Godfather he certainly ainít. Itís not even up to the same league of more contemporary examples like Heat and The Departed. American Gangster is more like a whitewashed blaxploitation effort in the hopes of classing it up without the necessary respect paid to its origin; biography without context, but still an interesting and mostly entertaining one.

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originally posted: 11/02/07 15:00:00
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell solid true crime story 4 stars
1/14/10 Samantha P great acting, this movie has a great look to it 4 stars
12/27/09 Jeff Wilder The story's nothing new. But Scott's direction and Washington and Crowe make it quite good. 4 stars
7/20/09 RLan More of a three and a half star rating. A decent movie, but nothing special. 4 stars
2/03/09 Matt Wanders at times, could use some trimming, but overall quite engrossing 3 stars
11/12/08 Michael M 2nd half of the movie wasn't suspenseful, but good as a whole, and definitley worth seeing. 3 stars
10/19/08 daveyt not exactly genre busting but v well acted and produced. Expected more visually from Scott 4 stars
10/16/08 Monday Morning Exceeded expectations for pace, storyline, acting. Could have been cut by 1/2 hr. tho. 4 stars
7/16/08 Farnsy Why the hell is Russell Crowe in this movie? 3 stars
6/27/08 Rabbits O Southern Shallow, pretensious rubbish...just saying 1 stars
3/31/08 R.W. Welch A pro piece of work all around -- and mostly true. 4 stars
3/03/08 ladavies No Soul. I did love Josh Brolin and Ruby Dee. 3 stars
2/04/08 Advantus Although not accurate according to Nicky Barnes it was a powerful movie on the drug trade. 4 stars
2/03/08 ad style over substance it is. Cheesy ending 2 stars
1/07/08 reptilesni Denzel sleepwalks through yet another movie. Never lived up to promise shown in Glory. 3 stars
12/18/07 Quigley Good acting, but nothing to get too excited over. Had some gruesome and disturbing scenes 4 stars
12/13/07 William Goss Thoroughly detailed and convincingly acted, but undeniably workmanlike. 3 stars
12/10/07 Wendell Maness Its hard to believe a person of his race could make 250 million- he was a lowlife 4 stars
12/06/07 MP Bartley Engrossing, but we've all been here before. 4 stars
11/29/07 Alice Good acting, good movie. 4 stars
11/19/07 stain amazing 5 stars
11/19/07 Agabus1128 It appears to be a compiltation of several gangster films we have already seen. NJC, GdFthr 3 stars
11/11/07 mr.mike not as gripping as it should have been , and a few unconvincing detours. 3 stars
11/10/07 John Some parts like when he shoots the guy in the head are just plain dumb. 3 stars
11/09/07 Random Black Mafia has always gotten short shrift on its history. This is especially relevant. 5 stars
11/09/07 Jefenator Not a masterpiece but it's a solid, competent film. DW and RC are good. 4 stars
11/09/07 kp too choppy and underdeveloped characters. worst gangster movie i have ever seen. 1 stars
11/06/07 el sordo It's not original, but it is well done 4 stars
11/06/07 Deb A masterpiece, much more original than some critics realize 5 stars
11/04/07 damalc amazing acting from top to bottom, should win sag award for cast 4 stars
11/04/07 D Excellent movie. Best i've seen so far this year. 5 stars
11/03/07 Obi Wan Great movie, great acting....MUST SEE 5 stars
11/03/07 Ole Man Bourbon Really good movie. Not over-the-top silly like many may wish for. 5 stars
11/03/07 action movie fan good acting and atmosphere-but goes nowhere-same thing over and over again-end is good 3 stars
11/03/07 Buttley I smell Oscar nominations! 5 stars
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  02-Nov-2007 (R)
  DVD: 19-Feb-2008



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