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Overall Rating
3.73

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 Eugene Novikov

"Ridley Scott: Still Awesome"
4 stars

The most interesting thing about AMERICAN GANGSTER is the modifier in the title, and Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian's view of the same. Both idealistic and deeply cynical, Ridley Scott's film dares to believe in the American Dream while at the same time suggesting that it can be perverted as easily as it can be fulfilled. After all, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) -- capitalist, family man, drug lord, individualist, innovator, murderer -- is basically its very embodiment, while his rival, Russell Crowe's Detective Richie Roberts, loses virtually everything arguably because of his honesty and dedication.

Provocative stuff, this, essentially arguing that the values this country was built on winds up rewarding vices more than virtues, and letting the wrong cream rise to the top. (The film's closest ideological kin in recent years is probably Scorsese's misanthropic Gangs of New York.) In less confident hands, this material might have seemed heavy-handed, even uncomfortable -- I can see myself accusing an alternate-universe American Gangster of being a thinly-veiled communist screed. But Scott and Zaillian are veterans if anyone is, smart enough to lean on character, not push too hard, and trust the performers to sell the big moments. It works: the film is taut and compelling, seeming iconic instead of derivative, its point of view emerging from the story and not the other way around.

Lucas rose to power in the 1970's, at the height of Vietnam -- indeed, he used his Army cousin to smuggle the heroin directly from the growers in the war-torn nation. He became the unofficial successor to his mentor, Bumpy Johnson (Clarance Williams III), the legendary and beloved mobster who, we sense, did things differently: when we first see him, he is distributing turkeys from the back of a truck. Lucas admires the man, and later continues the turkey tradition, but he's not terribly interested in being loved (except perhaps by his family, whom he moves into a mansion). He's a businessman -- find a supplier, establish a brand, cobble together a network, and sell, sell, sell. If protecting his brand and reputation means shooting a man dead on a crowded city street in broad daylight, well, that's business.

If Lucas is determined to be the kingpin -- beholden to no one -- Richie just wants to scrape by with a shred of integrity intact. He's basically defined by having turned in nearly a million dollars in drug money at a time when the standard practice for cops is to seize heroin, cut it, and sell it back; his fit of honesty makes him a pariah. But the film does a nice job of playing down any self-righteousness, such that when his estranged wife later accuses him of giving back that money "to buy being dishonest about everything else," we want to get defensive on his behalf. In what's turning out to be a banner year for him, Crowe is fantastic, a realistic and even funny portrait of rectitude -- Richie serving a subpoena by pitching it, with surprising athleticism, through a rapidly closing motel room door is one of those perfect movie moments I'm always grateful for.

The movie is clearly aiming for the gangster pantheon, though it spends more time than usual on the law enforcement end of the food chain. (On the other hand, with Josh Brolin playing the single most corrupt cop in the history of corruption and cops, what the hell's the difference?) What keeps it from getting there, ultimately, is a curious flatness -- American Gangster chugs along swimmingly, but there are no peaks or valleys, no opportunities for emotional release; the pace doesn't vary, and that can get exhausting. Scott tried a similar strategy a few years ago in Black Hawk Down, one of his best films, but there the relentlessness and lack of affect were essentially the point -- part of what made the war-is-hell film so powerful. Here, there is no such thematic confluence, and Scott just comes off as ungenerous.

But an ungenerous Ridley Scott is still better than pretty much anyone else, generous or not, and American Gangster is a smart and engaging pleasure. Its politics could have muddled and distracted, but instead the presence of a point of view staved off biopic boredom. This could have been a prestige picture on autopilot, but instead it's something genuinely interesting.

(Reprinted from Filmblather.com)

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=15748&reviewer=419
originally posted: 11/02/07 17:33:24
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell solid true crime story 4 stars
9/21/10 PAUL SHORTT WATCHABLE TRUE STORY 3 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
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  02-Nov-2007 (R)
  DVD: 19-Feb-2008

UK
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