American Gangster

Movie Review #871

“AMERICAN GANGSTER”…AMERICAN MASTERPIECE.

★★★★
By Alexander Diminiano

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Premiered October 19, 2007 (New York City, New York)
Released November 2, 2007 (nationwide)
Biography, Crime, Drama
Unrated Extended Version:
Not Rated (contains material not included in the theatrical version)
175 minutes
Theatrical Version:
Rated R (contains violence, frequent drug content, frequent profanity, nudity, sexual content)
157 minutes

Editor’s Note: This is a review of the Unrated Extended Version.

Ridley Scott is a damn fine director. The kind that you remember for his several masterpieces, because they’re plentiful, and his stinkers are there, but they’re forgettable. I immediately associate his name with “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Thelma & Louise” (1992), “Gladiator” (2000), and “Prometheus” (2012). I don’t immediately tend to recall that two of his films that I’ve seen I very much disliked. Those were “Hannibal” and “Black Hawk Down” (both 2001), which I’d almost forgotten existed until I did a quick Google Search on the director.

As far as I’ve seen, Scott hasn’t yet made an average film. They’re all either way above average, or considerably below average. Even considering this man’s résumé, I was surprised, and still am, by what a great movie “American Gangster” is. It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller that functions as a biopic. (Maybe it’s two biopics, but the focus here is on Frank Lucas more than his pursuer.) But the term “biopic” doesn’t even seem to fit, because while this is essentially a true story retold, it’s not about two men who are going with whatever situations life leads them into. It’s about two men who fight aggressively for what they want. We could debate for hours about whether or not they’re great minds, but they do think alike. Their approach to everything they wish to accomplish is entirely Machiavellian. Neither one of them cares what damage they do to get what they want. They’ll move on from any deaths that result, and if they succeed, it can only be because they haven’t done anything wrong.

But this is only “wrong” in its shallowest sense; “morally wrong” is given no consideration in “American Gangster”. Admittedly, this is a very immoral movie. Though immoral as it may be, “American Gangster” is immensely engaging. Ridley Scott not only directed but also produced the movie, through Scott Free Productions (his production company for every film he has directed since 1991, save for “1492: La conquête du paradis”). To a certain extent, this means he had final cut authority over “American Gangster”. The “unrated extended” cut runs 175 minutes, a time of around 20 minutes longer than the theatrical release, and every minute added heightens the film’s intensity.

This is the thrilling story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Lucas is a heroin dealer from Harlem. What sets him apart from other dealers is that he doesn’t buy heroin off the street in order to sell it. He figures a way for greater profit: going to Vietnam, trading the heroin in its pure form with his cousin Nate in Vietnam**, taking it with him as he stowed away on military planes headed back to the U.S.A., and smuggling it into a house in La Grange, North Carolina, where he cuts and sells it himself.

Lucas’s dilemma is an emotional one. He doesn’t know the Drug Enforcement Administration is after him, nor is he afraid of it. His one overwhelming fear is shaming his family. The house he is smuggling drugs into isn’t simply his house; it’s a grand, beautiful mansion that he has financed with drug money, in order for his family to live in. A few of his cousins are helping him in the business, as is his brother (a stellar Chiwetel Ejiofor). But this is considering that he has countless cousins, all of which he seems to know. Many of them are unaware of his drug smuggling, and would likely prefer to remain in the dark. More importantly, Lucas’s grandmother is unaware of what the house she’s living in is being used for. The greatest shame would be for her to discover. (That’s Ruby Dee in that role, and her performance in the film is so convincing it’s almost real. May she rest in peace.)

Russell Crowe, a Ridley Scott regular, plays Richie Roberts with determination. His performance also certainly stipulates that despite the fact that he is a corrupt cop (and simply an aggressive man, when he is laid off the job), he’s really nothing more than a weakling. Best of all in the development of his character, is that he doesn’t know who he is pursuing for half the movie. Yet when he does discover Frank Lucas, it’s at a most unlikely time, in a most unlikely place. He can’t prove that the guy he’s been looking for is Lucas, but in some sense, he knows it beyond the shadow of a doubt. (I am reminded of a similar instance in a later medium, which is Hank Schrader’s sudden realization at the beginning of season five of Breaking Bad.)

Ridley Scott’s direction of “American Gangster” works much like Martin Scorsese’s signature filmmaking style. The fast-paced “Goodfellas”-like opening scene. The brief-but-brutal apartment raid that occurs several minutes later, where graphic violence is downplayed by rock music that happens to be playing in the apartment. The use of slow-motion when introducing new characters, and camera flashes during pivotal scenes. In short, it seems like a Scorsesean masterpiece, at times, but it’s also clearly a Ridley Scott masterpiece. However you look at it, it’s a masterpiece.

**The character Nate is the result of the film’s creative license. He represents someone else in Vietnam who was akin to Frank’s family, because he was married to one of Frank’s cousins.

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3 thoughts on “American Gangster

  1. I remember Ruby Dee was Oscar nominated that year for her performance. Everyone thought it was a three way race between her, Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone and Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There. When the award was finally given, who should receive the award but Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton. Nobody was predicted that.

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