Denzel, Crowe go toe-to-toe in American Gangster

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Scene from American Gangster

NOW IF YOU'LL EXCUSE ME, THERE'S SOMEONE OUTSIDE I NEED TO GO KILL. Frank Lucas (Washington) gives a lesson in business to his brothers moments before stepping outside to gun down a rival dealer.

American Gangster
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, The RZA, Common

4 stars

It has become increasingly difficult to create an authentic gangster flick that’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Goodfellas or King of New York. American Gangster is no exception.

Ridley Scott’s voyage into the seedy underworld of the 1970s heroin trade presents the true-life tale of Frank Lucas (Washington), the figurehead of Harlem’s inner city trafficking empire, who paves his way to the top by enforcing a strict code of business and ethics.

Playing opposite Lucas is Richie Roberts (Crowe), an outcast cop driven to the fringes of his own precinct by the overwhelming corruption that has spawned an army of greedy police officers.

Like Lucas, Roberts maintains his own code of ethics. Upon discovering Lucas is importing heroin from Vietnam in the coffins of dead soldiers, Roberts undertakes a harrowing journey to bring Lucas down and curb the corruption plaguing the drug squad of the NYPD.

It’s obvious the cast members spent a great deal of time preparing their roles " the acting is outstanding. However, one cannot ignore the fact Washington, though he delivers a great performance, is pigeonholed into the same role he played in Training Day.

As is the norm for most of Scott’s films, the cinematography of American Gangster is beautiful. Those looking for a fast-paced, shoot-‘em-up-style gangster flick should look elsewhere, as Scott abandons this motif for a more methodical approach in illustrating the emotional complexities of both Lucas and Roberts.

However, despite its lack of over-the-top violence, American Gangster still includes several gory scenes, one of which shows Lucas quietly getting up from his seat in a breakfast diner, calmly proceeding outside and firing a bullet square in the head of a rival " in broad daylight.

Despite strong performances and complex subplots, American Gangster has several shortcomings.

At times, American Gangster comes off as another title in the long list of clichéd gangster flicks, complete with the predicatable rise-and-fall storyline seen in films like Scarface.

The film is also lengthy. At just over two and a half hours with a focus on character development rather than action, American Gangster is too long and tedious. Moreover, there are a number of superfluous, distracting characters.

Lucas is celebrated as an embodiment of black empowerment who stands for political autonomy through financial gain. However, the notion of Lucas as a hero is continually undermined by the fact that those he’s trying to represent are the same people who buy his drugs and fund his empire. The disparity between these two perspectives further complicates any evaluation of Lucas as a real hero.

Nevertheless, American Gangster is an enjoyable experience, but unlike The Godfather, it fails to leave a lasting impression.

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