American Gangster

At first glance, it would be easy to confuse Ridley Scott’s American Gangster for your run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up actioner, complete with big stars, big guns and big drama. One could even goes as far as to expect a big twist at the end, leaving the audience in a state of shock not felt since Leonardo DiCaprio’s brains got spread all over the wall of an elevator last year in The Departed.

But upon closer inspection, American Gangster reveals itself to be something completely different. For starters, it is based on a true story — and while we all like to think that reality is just as exciting as the movies, there is no huge climax that will take your breath away. It also fails to deliver the level of pulse pounding action that you may expect — or that the marketing campaign would lead you to believe exists.

But that is what American Gangster is not; it’s not a big action flick and its not a clever hollywood cop drama. What it is though, is one of the best films of the year, showcasing two of the premier actors in the business doing what they do best.

On one side is Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a once no-name drug runner from Harlem who uses the American conflict in Vietnam to import high grade heroin into New York and sell it at nearly half the price of the competition. The success of his product, affectionately known as “Blue Magic”, would take him from the streets to the big house, rising above the traditional mob and staying well off the radar of any law enforcement because, let’s face it, there’s no way a black man could accomplish more than the American mafia in the 1970s, right?

There is a way, that is until Detective Richie Roberts (played by Russell Crowe) catches on to Frank’s scheme and begins a careful game of cat and mouse to expose him as the most dangerous man on the streets of New York. It’s a cat and mouse game that takes up much of the film’s 157 minute running time, but it is engaging and entertaining none-the-less.

What is truly engaging are the two performances and the ability of these two leads to allow their characters to toy with us, jumping back and forth between right and wrong. Denzel Washington is nothing shot of a dirty, badass mofo who set’s people on fire, shoots other mobsters in the middle of a crowded street and even slams the head of his own cousin in a piano just to keep his business intact, yet we still find ourselves rooting for him. Russell Crowe delivers Roberts as a real boy scout, the cop who turned in $1 million dollars in unmarked cash from a drug bust, and yet we still find him to be a womanizer and a deadbeat dad.

It is that dynamic that keeps the audience wrapped up in this story for so long. Kudos to Ridley Scott, who is certainly no slouch as a director (Ahem, Gladiator), for making what could be the definitive cop drama of this decade. Scott takes his time, builds tension perfectly and allows his two lead actors to unleash their rich, engaging characters on the audience.

As my good friend Kristin Dreyer Kramer said on Fat Guys at the Movies this week, American Gangster is a “thinking man’s action movie”, the perfect balance between well executed drama and shocking moments of badassery. Sure there aren’t any Michael Bay style explosions or big plot twists right at the end, but there are plenty of those in the world. But sometimes instead of Bad Boys, we want to see something more akin to The Godfather. And this year, during this awards season, this is the long lost cousin of The Godfather that we have all been waiting for.

Grade: A

American Gangster PosterRelease Date: November 2, 2007
Rated: R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.
Running Time: 157 min.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian, Mark Jacobson
Studio: Universal Pictures
Official Website: AmericanGangster.net