Thursday, March 25, 2010

Archive: "American Gangster" (2007)

Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" is a perfectly compelling crime epic. In terms of being an exercise in the genre, it doesn't get any better than this. The movie is a recipe for success to begin with anyway, taking a big name director with a big name producer, Brian Grazer, and then adding in two big name actors to tell one big story about crime, corruption, drugs, and redemption. It's a dense and richly satisfying film based on a true story, and one that opens with a bang: Drug lord Frank Lucas torches one of his victims and then pumps him with bullets as he burns to put him out of his misery.

The story takes place in the late 60s and early 70s, and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) rules the streets of New York City. After his boss Bumpy Johnson dies, Lucas vows to keep his traditions alive by treating everybody with respect, keeping a low profile in his business, and silencing all opposition, and even passing out turkeys on Thanksgiving. He also realizes that the Harlem drug trafficking business has a fatal flaw of allowing the goods to pass through the Mafia. Lucky for Lucas, it's Vietnam and the soldiers fighting over there are using heroin; and so, he flies over to Thailand to import the goods directly through military cargo planes. He's in control of what's coming in, and he works for nobody. He calls his product "Blue Magic," and it beats all of his competitors because it's half the price for twice the potency. Overall, Frank Lucas is an excellent businessman, but it just so happens that his business is in drugs.

Nobody suspects Lucas because he's a smart man, but more so, because he's a black man. He enlists the help of his five brothers from North Carolina, positioning each of them at different fronts for drug distribution points. He also brings up his mother and buys her a large house where upper-class white people would normally live. Unlike Lucas' flamboyant rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who dresses fly and talks out a lot, Lucas stays low, dresses modestly, and strives to not draw any attention to himself or his activities. That is, until he gets himself a nice wife from Puerto Rico; her sole mistake is buying him a large fur coat and hat. Lucas wears them to a boxing match where he sits down next to a well-known Mafia man just as undercover cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is watching.

Richie Roberts is an ex-detective who is recruited to work undercover to go after drug traffickers and corrupt narcs in the city. He got a bad reputation in his previous department for finding $1 million and turning it in instead of easily keeping it for himself and his buddies. And that's not the only thing on Roberts' mind; he has a wife who makes him choose between his family and his job, and they eventually get into a lawsuit. Well, the job triumphs, and Roberts dedicates himself to catching Lucas even against tough opposition (Josh Brolin). The irony here is in each of these men's lives. Lucas has values and devotion to his family and takes his mother to church every Sunday, and he's extremely successful in business; the problem is where his success comes from. Richie Roberts, on the other hand, has a troubled family with a life in shambles but a job that works towards good. So, who exactly comes out to be the better man after it all? It's tough to really say.

The plot is unique in that it's told through two parallel story lines. Lucas does his thing, while unknowing to him, Roberts is slowly working towards his capture. The movie's writers do a superb job of holding our attention all the while these two separate streams of narrative occur simultaneously without converging until the final scenes of the entire movie. The two protagonists don't come face to face until the very end in a final confrontation that is justly rewarding. It's no give-away that Lucas gets captured; his sentence, however, is shortened because he helps Richie reveal that three-fourths of the narcs in the city were corrupt. It ends on a conversation between two intelligent men who realize they have met their match and that they need each other.

Denzel Washington is mesmerizing with his best work to date as Frank Lucas, the man who knows he's in charge; he is reserved and calm on the outside but can be entirely ruthless if necessary. Then there's Russel Crowe's Richie Roberts, the polar opposite of Lucas, as a man who has the uncanny ability to alienate himself entirely. He's like a badgered bulldog just plodding along until he finally reaches something worth struggling for. If it weren't for these two men, there would be no story; if it weren't for Richie, Lucas' business would still be going, and if it weren't for Lucas, Richie would still be stuck somewhere else.

Washington and Crowe turn in strong performances, enabling "American Gangster" to never have a dull moment. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, the movie is fully engrossing. It moves briskly and smoothly, it's finely made, and it's a meticulously detailed look into a captivating true story.

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