Sunday, April 25, 2010

"American Gangster"

Denzel Washington. Russell Crowe. Ridley Scott. November. “Based on a true story.” Yep, that sounds like the recipe for a couple of Academy Awards.

It’s that time of year again. Every major film production and distribution company will be releasing its top notch drama in hopes of capturing the attention of the award show gurus. This is the first real “Oscar Hopeful” I’ve seen this season and I must say, I hope the rest of the field lives up to the standard set here.

“American Gangster” is the story of 1970’s drug pusher Frank Lucas (Washington) and Richie Roberts (Crowe), the cop who eventually brought him down. Lucas is an interesting figure in that up until this point, at least to white America, his story is mostly unknown. For a crime figure as big as he was, very few people knew much about his story until this film began making the rounds. Lucas imported heroin, and strong heroin at that, directly from Asia and sold it at such a low price anyone and everyone could (and did) buy it, turning Lucas into one of the richest men in the world. This was all done under the radar because, as pointed out in the film, the authorities could hardly believe that some “negro” could be making that much money; he was thought to be a middle man at best. Truth was, however, while the Feds chased the Italian Mafia, Lucas was busy putting the Mafia out of business.

Eventually, and really quite shortly when you consider his reign lasted only about 8 years, Lucas got too big to go unnoticed and was brought to justice through the work of Richie Roberts and his “Untouchable” like team. In the end, Lucas turned on just about every buyer, seller, and partner he ever had, most notably the corrupt cops of the day. According to the film, Lucas’ finger pointing led to approximately 80 percent of the NYPD’s Special Forces Unit, those most directly responsible for stomping out the drug trade, being convicted of some sort of charge related to Lucas’ operation.

“American Gangster” is a very strong film, if a bit too long. There are portions of the film that could have been cut without missing much but then again, whom I to question Mr. Scott? The movie flows without much bogging down and while it flirts with the boring side at times, it never quite jumps over that razor thin line.

This is one of Scott’s finer works and most certainly his best since “Gladiator.” Many directors might have been tempted to show the background for the inevitable clash between Lucas and Roberts in flashback and in my opinion that would have been a mistake. Rather, starting the story from the beginning and leading up to fore mentioned clash leaves the viewer feeling as if he has something invested in the movie and in the characters and builds the drama as we draw closer and closer to the moment when Lucas is finally stopped. That Washington and Crowe do not share the screen until the final 15 minutes is a stroke of genius. Because “American Gangster” moves so well, the viewer never really realizes this fact until the moment that they do meet and it makes the final confrontation that much more fresh and important.

Great credit for the success of “AG” should go to the actors, both acclaimed and lesser known. Denzel is Denzel. He is always strong and always COMMANDS the attention anytime he comes on screen. I believe you could have 20 naked, burning clowns riding unicorns on screen with Denzel only watching in the background and the audience’s attention would still be drawn to Denzel. He is a truly magnificent actor and films such as “Training Day” and “American Gangster” allow him to show off his depth and his presence. He is certainly worthy of the Oscar nod that will undoubtedly come his way.

Crowe is equally impressive, though for me, his stage presence doesn’t quite match that of Washington (but truthfully, not many can). Roberts is, of course, an imperfect hero. A womanizer, a drinker, and a bad father, his only real virtue is in the fact that he is not a dirty cop in an era devoid of honest police work. He refuses to take a bribe or file a false report even when these actions result in the death of his partner and his own exile from the rest of his department. But that which alienates him is what eventually leads him to his role as head of a team specifically designed for bringing down the drug trade. Crowe plays the vulnerable and afflicted Roberts well and could very well earn an Oscar nod himself.

Three other performances deserve special mention. Josh Brolin is spectacular as the dirtiest of dirty cops, Detective Trupo. Trupo wages war against Lucas because Lucas refuses to pay him off and the result is a battle that provides the upfront action the audience wants while distracting from the battle to come between Lucas and Roberts. Brolin is an excellent actor and between this film and the upcoming “No Country For Old Men,” he will hopefully have the opportunity to gain some well deserved respect in Hollywood.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, as always, gives a strong performance as one of Lucas’ brothers who is essentially the second in command. Ejiofor is a fantastic actor who never seems to get the credit he deserves. Whether it’s “Children of Men,” “Serenity,” or (cringe) “Melinda and Melinda,” Ejiofor seems to always steal the screen yet never reaps the benefit when it’s all said and done. Maybe casting directors are just unable to pronounce his name and so choose not to call him rather than risk the embarrassment of stumbling through “Chew-it-tell Edge-oh-for.” Regardless, Ejiofor is fantastic in this role and every other role he’s ever played and I hope that “American Gangster” will vault him to bigger things.

Lastly, I would like to point out the work of Ruby Dee, who plays Frank Lucas’ mother. According to, Ms. Dee has 93 credits to her name and I’d be lying if I said I had ever noticed her before. I noticed her in “American Gangster.” Her lines are few, her screen time is sparse, but in one short monologue in which she rages against the ways of her drug pushing son, Ms. Dee owns the screen. She shows great power and desperation mixed with a little guilt at having profited off her sons’ illicit work. Ms. Dee may only have been on screen for 9 or 10 minutes but she, as much as Washington or Crowe, deserves a nomination as she made an impression on this writer and anyone else who was paying attention.

I would stop short of calling “American Gangster” a great movie. However, it is a very good, well structured movie that is deserving of the attention it garnered before its release and barring some serious surprises, I expect to see its contributors name’s mentioned once Oscar season rolls around.

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