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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) - Ridley Scott

There’s no doubt of the appeal of films like Goodfellas and The Godfather, or television’s The Sopranos. Everybody loves to take a glimpse into the criminal underworld where there are no rules, and life is cheap, but the rewards for the ruthless are attractive. The criminals are often charismatic sociopaths, while the cops are flawed heroes. We all have seen these types of films, we’ve all enjoyed them. So with the release of Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, you’d expect more of the same. Which might sound repetitive, but with heavyweights like Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington on board, there’s no doubt there’ll be something special about the movie.

American Gangster is a true story, based on Harlem gangster, Frank Lucas, a drug dealer who managed to fool the authorities and create a massive New York drug empire, and Richie Roberts, the New Jersey police officer who made it his goal to bring Lucas down.
Lucas started his criminal career as driver and collector for Harlem godfather and father-figure for Lucas, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. After Johnson’s death, Lucas took on his mentor’s business. But Lucas saw the power in heroin. But rather than being merely a pusher, Lucas went straight to the source in South East Asia. Using military planes bringing dead soldiers home to the US from Vietnam, Lucas was able to sell better quality heroin at a cheaper price, making enemies of rival gangs and eventually attracting the attention of the police.
Meanwhile, Richie Roberts is one of those rare things (at least in the movies)- an honest cop. Roberts stumbles on one million dollars, but rather than taking the money and running, he hands the money in. In the process, he makes himself a pariah. But recognising his honesty, Roberts is made the head of the new narcotics taskforce, charged with cleaning the streets of heroin. Eventually, he is made aware of Frank Lucas, and makes it his job to bring the drug kingpin to justice.

There are inevitable comparisons that will be made between American Gangster and the films that are similar to it. Certainly, Ridley Scott has taken inspiration from many of the great crime films. However, Scott’s technical brilliance as a director elevates American Gangster to a level a less talented director would never be able to achieve. The film is set in the late sixties and early seventies, and there is not one moment that isn’t steeped in the era. Not one second goes by where you don’t believe that New York is in the seventies. The soundtrack lends itself to achieving this, and is as good as anything Scorsese could have put together. This, coupled with the acting chops of the two leads are clearly the strengths of the film.

I’ve found Ridley Scott’s recent films to be a mixed bag of mediocrity and disappointment. Which in itself is a disappointment since Blade Runner and Alien are two of cinema’s great films. However, there is no doubting Scott’s technical ability, and it’s great to have a film from him that I was so impressed by in the cinemas again. The acting, not just from Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington is almost perfect, but it is the two leads who are the key to the film. It would be pretty easy to make either character the most interesting for the audience, but Scott gives both Lucas and Roberts ample screen time, to make you interested in both. It’s a similar structure to Michael Mann’s Heat, where both stories intercut, but you know that both characters will eventually have a showdown. And while Crowe and Washington do not share screen time for the majority of the film, when they do eventually meet, the ‘showdown’ is compelling.

The film is long. One hundred and fifty seven minutes long. And at moments, it does drag. However, it is an epic film, and the story justifies the length. With it’s technical brilliance, and two excellent performances, American Gangster is one of the best films of the year. It’s not a classic, but an extremely solid crime film.


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