A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

 

Rank: # 6

 

AMERICAN GANGSTER jjjj

2007, R, 157 mins.

Frank Lucas: Denzel Washington / Richie Roberts: Russell Crowe / Huey Lucas: Chiwetel Ejiofor / Det. Trupo: Josh Brolin / Nicky Barnes: Cuba Gooding Jr. / Moses Jones: RZA / Frank's mother: Ruby Dee / Laurie Roberts: Carla Gugino / Dominic Cattano: Armand Assante / Toback: Ted Levine

Diirected by Ridley Scott /  Written by Steven Zaillian / Based on an article by Mark Jacobson

"The man I worked for had one of the biggest companies in New York City.  He didn't own his own company.  White man owned it, so they owned him.  Nobody owns me, though."

- Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington)

in AMERICAN GANGSTER

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a bold, sprawling, and utterly fascinating American crime epic that elicits - and deserves - legitimate comparisons to other masterstroke genre films like GOODFELLAS, SCARFACE, and THE GODFATHER. 

While not necessarily achieving the heights of those great works, AMERICAN GANGSTER certainly takes top claim to providing such a unilateral and democratic focus with its subject matter. Itís most definitive characteristic - and one that seems mostly vacant in other gangster films - is that it finds as much interest in the criminals and the authorities that desperately try to bring them to justice.

The film is long (clocking in at close to three hours), but its absorbent running time is not a hindrance: itís a virtue.  What AMERICAN GANGSTER does with such an effortless efficiency is that it hones in with such a remarkable even handedness on its main crook and respective good guy.

Far too many similar genre films find more intrinsic fascination with the villains and their operations, but the most refreshing thing here is that it places an equal investment in the tireless work of the members of the law.  However, the film never takes a cheap and obvious stance as to whom deserves our praise and/or contempt.  Simple minded screenplays would have us think the crook is irreproachably evil and that the hero cop is a square jawed boy scout.  AMERICAN GANGSTER is never told with such a squeaky clean palette: It is a crime film that is awash in morally questionable grey areas.  Oftentimes, the "hero" is presented in as disreputable of a light as the criminal.

The hero of the film (based on a true story and set in the late 1960's and early 70's) in question is a stubborn and rigidly honest New Jersey police officer named Richie Roberts (played in the film by the great Russell Crowe).  He has become somewhat of a hated man in his department.  Why?  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he had confiscated a million dollars in untraceable drug money during a bust and actually turned it in.  Common practice, it appears, was that money like this was usually designated for payoffs for greedy and unscrupulous cops.  His honesty and integrity allows him to get a much more distinguished assignment to a newly formed narcotics squad, where he is allowed to head up it up and hire his own breed of "untouchables".  His goal is to arrest the most powerful and highest placed drug dealer in the city.

The criminal they eventually cross paths with is Frank Lucas (played by the equally great Denzel Washington), who went from being a lowly driver for one of the most powerful crime bosses in Harlan to a drug kingpin.   It has been said that, at his peak, Lucas was making a million dollars a day selling drugs on 116th street.  Possessing a shrewd and amazing business ethic, marketing spunk, and a lot of street smarts, he created a heroin empire that dwarfed all others at the time.  He was the undisputed monarch of Harlem and he offered a product that most other heroin dealers envied.  He had a two prong attack to doing "business" and making a killing at it: (1) He eliminated the middle man in the drug trade and bought his merchandise directly from the supplier in Southeast Asia and (2) he was able to secure heroin that was nearly pure (much more so than what was sold on the streets at the time) and a fraction of the cost.

Itís the kind of smart and cunning business model that could have easily been utilized in any other legitimate company, and the manner with which Lucas was able to build and empire was as astonishing as it was calculating.  Like all gangsters that made it big, he started in relative obscurity, inheriting a vast crime network from his famous boss, Bumpy Johnson.  Having worked as a driver for him until his death, Lucas was able to use all of the teachings of Johnson into his future endeavors.  The boldness of his strategy is ingenious: Only a man of vision would have risked so much to go into the jungles of Vietnam, negotiate with drug lords and with rogue elements of the US armed forces, to smuggle the product back into the US to make his fortune.  At his best, Lucas made nearly a quarter of a billion dollars....

...and he did so while being a minority.

That last point is crucial to make, seeing as he was clearly an unrecognized and undervalued player in a largely white, mafioso world.  His ethnicity, in a way, was the ultimate cover: Most free thinking law enforcement officials at the time would never bring themselves to see an African American as the most powerful drug dealer in the country.

It would be easy to narrowly see Lucas as "bad" and Roberts as "good", but AMERICAN GANGSTER makes no easy concessions.  Yes, Lucas was a vile and contemptible man for engaging and profiting off of the lives of thousands that became addicted to his lethal product.  Not only that, but he is also presented in the film as a cold blooded and sadistic killer.  Heís the kind of mobster that would rise from his morning breakfast table at a restaurant, walk outside, shoot an man in the head that disrespected him, and then proceed to go back into the restaurant to finish his meal as if nothing happened.  Clearly, this guy is a fiend.

But Washington plays the hoodlum with such a dichotomy.  Lucas was a foul- mouthed hot head that was viscous, but he was also a caring family man that strongly believed in the nobility of honor and integrity.  He cared for his family, loved and honored his mother (with all of his business ventures, he still took his mommy to church every Sunday) and his affirmative brilliance and precision he brought to his job is oddly commendable.  His obsession with getting respect in a racially intolerant and bigoted white world of crime is also kind of inspiring.  One intriguing moment shows him chastising his brother for dressing like a pimp at a social engagement.  "What that outfit says," he tells him, "is 'arrest me!'" Lucas may have been a criminal, but he was one that wanted to be taken seriously and legitimately.  He was also considered a modern day Robin Hood figure for the way he funneled his money back into Harlem to help the needy and homeless.  He was an elite figure to downtrodden; he may have been a vengeful murderer, but he did have a heart for those in desperation.

Roberts, on the same token, is played by Crowe as well with a rich diversity.  He may have been trustworthy enough to not steal a million dollars in drug money, but his personal life is permeated with problems.  He is not appreciated or trusted by the other crooked cops at first, and to make matters worse, his wife (Carla Gugino) is suing him for custody of their young child.  Roberts also definitely comes across as an unfit parent.  He is in a vocation that is dangerous, not to mention that he is also a notorious flirt and a womanizer (he is shown having several one night stands, one even with his divorce attorney).  Roberts, at times, is somewhat of a paradox: He is a man that is trying to do good, but he also makes his own ethically questionable choices in life.

The film manages to find a mediating character between these two forces in the form of a wicked corrupt New York cop named Trupo (played with pitch perfect sleaziness by Josh Brolin), who is so on the take that if he did not have a badge, then he could easily be seen as a first rate thief.  Whatís astonishing here is that the film paints this cop as being the most reprehensible of the lot.  Frank is clearly  rotten for what he does, and Roberts too has his disagreeable faults, but Trupo is a conniving little worm of a man for the way he professes to be a man of the law while recklessly and selfishly breaking it in an effort to turn a profit.  His opportunistic zeal is revolting.  By a cursory comparison, Lucas is a dignified business man.

Itís the character dynamic that makes AMERICAN GANGSTER another stirring and provocative effort in the proud and long legacy of the crime film genre.  Washington as Lucas is kind of an archetypal mob figure in the way he plays both wholesomeness and ruthlessness (attributes that typified the Corleone film family).  He is figure that simultaneously commands our respect and hatred.  He is a caring family man and a wise entrepreneur, but his business ruins lives by the thousands.  He also makes some sickening choices later on in his operation.  When Saigon falls he discovers that he lacks a way to ship heroin back into the US.  As a result, he decides to smuggle the drugs in the coffins of dead soldiers coming home.  But the brilliance of Washington here is that he never plays up his part to malicious antagonism nor does he make him to decent and affable.  Heís a figure to look up to, but itís always apparent what he really does and the sins he commits are never whitewashed.

Crowe, in fact, may have the juicier and trickier of the roles, playing the hero that also commands equal parts scorn and esteem.  Ultimately, his drive and persistence with looking at Lucas as a main figure in the drug trade when everyone else thought he was nuts is praiseworthy.  He fought his personal war against drug trafficking and dirty cops all while going to night school in an effort to pass the bar exam to become a prosecutor.  Eventually, his tenacity and never-say-die spirit allowed him to capture and charge Lucas.  By 1976 Lucas was sentenced to 70 years in prison but, in an interesting turn of events, he ended up working alongside Roberts and provided evidence that led to the convictions of over 100 drug related criminals (and a lot of crooked cops).  He eventually saw his sentence reduced to 15 years and when he was released in 1991 he was a poor, broken down man that was barely a shadow of his former self, much akin to Henry Hill in GOODFELLAS, whom had a similar fate.

AMERICA GANGSTER was written by Steven Zaillian and was based on a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson.  It is a strong return to form for Zaillian, whose last effort was 2006's regretfully and dreadfully inert ALL THE KINGíS MEN.  GANGSTER was directed by Ridley Scott, whose recent career reveals a startling variety and filmmaking composure.  Not bound by genre or by time period, his resume kind of astounds with its breadth (in the current decade he has made such divergent films like GLADIATOR, HANNIBAL, BLACK HAWK DOWN, MATCHSTICK MEN, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, and a GOOD YEAR).  On the technical side, AMERICAN GANGSTER is fiercely mounted and ambitious and - not surprisingly - Scott creates an impeccable landscape of realistic period detail and atmosphere.  His largest accolade would be is level headedness with the material and characters.  Lesser directors could have easily focused on the stories of either the cop or criminal, and itís a testament to Scottís maturity as a filmmaker to see the value in both vantage points: It is that quality that makes the film stand apart.

Of course, the film can also be treasured because of the Oscar caliber work of Washington and Crowe, and the film builds to a crescendo where we finally are granted a scene where the two play opposite of one another.  It creates that same sense of indescribable tension and intrigue that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro had in Michael Mannís HEAT.  Interestingly, when Crowe and Washington square off, itís a small and modest moment at a table over a coffee, just as Pacino and De Niro did.  What I loved here - in GANGSTERís finest scene - is that there is a mutual respect of the minds.  They may be polar opposites in terms of occupations, but they see themselves as intellectual equals.  Very few crime and police procedural films create moments of such intelligence and seduction with the material.  AMERICAN GANGSTER does, which throughout its 159 minutes plays like a grand homage to classic mob films of yesteryear.

Years from now, this one just may be as fondly remembered.

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