Review: American Gangster (2007)

You already know I’m a Ridley Scott fan – while I was in film school in LA, I spent 4 months interning at his company during the making of A Good Year. So you’ll expect gushing during any review of a Ridley film (and yes, that’s here). But if you’ve already seen Gangster, you’ll know it’s deserved; this film is a piece of filmmaking on par with Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, anything he’s made, or any gangster movie we’ve ever seen (though I am not suggesting that it exceeds The Godfather, Coppola faithful. Spare me your letter of vilest hate). It both embraces convention and holds it out at arm’s length, reinventing how we see organized crime and its fallout in ways that the twenty years of network television between this film and Goodfellas has tried and utterly failed to.

The storyline is as basic as it comes: druglord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) floods the street with a heroin twice as potent and half as expensive as anything else available, netting himself money and power. Tenacious narcotics cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) tries to sniff his way up the power chain and bring down Lucas. We’ve seen this story before (well, not personally, probably, but on the television).

Naturally, the story is in the details, and Ridley is never more on his game in that regard than he is right here. Every piece of standard Ridley filmmaking is on display here; there are combinations of every sort of inventive camerawork here that, unlike so many directors of the day, always enhances and never detracts. But it’s his eye for verisimilitude that has improved with age: every cement-block hallway and cramped office, every piece of lighting, every prop, feels completely true to the world and to the characters. No one ever gets that “hey, I’m in a period film, don’t I look cool in 70’s duds!” look on their face, which is impressive considering the supporting actors on display here aren’t usually known for their restraint (rappers T.I. and Common do stalwart work here, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. reminds us why we once thought he was Oscar material).

But the real story is the performances of the two leads, who (like Michael Mann’s Heat) essentially head up two entirely separate films and only cross paths at the very last moment – and even then, with the whole story almost completely told, the sparks of their very proximity ignite the film again. Washington deserves the real credit here, his Frank Lucas is a role as perfectly suited to him as any he’s ever done. Here, Lucas is driven, dedicated, committed to family; he betrays almost no weaknesses – he’s a businessman, through and through. The idea of good and evil seems to essentially have never occurred to him. He sees an opportunity and exploits it, and when the money starts to roll in, the first thing he does is take care of the people he brought with him. Washington plays Lucas essentially the same way he’s played every role he’s ever taken, it’s not until we’re a good hour and a half into his performance that we see that Lucas is almost soulless, a man of principles and work ethic but no heart at all.

Crowe’s portrayal of Roberts is just as complicated, a man of considerable passion and ethic who has burned every element of his life down except for his commitment to his profession and the good work that he’s doing in it. Early on we see him recover almost a million dollars in police bribes; rather than keeping the money, staying rich, and staying out of trouble at the station, he turns the cash in, fully knowing that the money will end up in the hands of the dirty cops it was going to anyway (and, of course, it does) and that he'll be ostracized for ratting (and he is). It’s a basic vignette on the sort of man Roberts is, but tellingly, it haunts Roberts the rest of the film, as the men he works with and the men he seeks to bring down react in the same unbelieving, head-shaking fashion when they hear the story. It’s as if to everyone in the film but Roberts, the law is something along the lines of a parental curfew, the sort of thing for goody-goodies who don’t know the value of a dollar. In his darker moments, it sometimes seems Roberts himself feels that.

The trailers bill the film as a pounding head-to-head combat between good and evil, but really Roberts and Lucas are cut from the same mold, separated only by a small differentiation in the direction of their moral compass. But that small difference gives them such different lives it takes the whole film for us to see how similar they are. But with a film as good as this one, it’s certainly worth waiting that long.

Four Stars Out Of Five