American Gangster

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American Gangster
Review (7.5/10)
(By Erin Cullin)

In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola made film history when he released a film that, for the first time, pulled back the curtain on organized crime in America. There had been "gangster" movies, but none which had examined organized crime in such depth.

That film, of course, was the Godfather, and from it sprang such classics as Scarface, Goodfellas, Casino, The Untouchables, New Jack City, Donnie Brasco, Once Upon a Time in America and Miller's Crossing, to name a few. In 2007, a new title is being added to that list. Appropriately enough, that title is American Gangster.

Directed by Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott, American Gangster offers a glimpse into the fascinating rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a one-time underling to an African-American crime boss, who ascends the ranks to become the head of the most influential drug distribution operation in Harlem during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Lucas manages to fly under the radar until he attracts the attention of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a paradoxical police officer who is an outcast among his peers because he chooses to conduct himself with integrity rather than to succumb to the temptations of corruption. When their paths cross, they find themselves having to choose one road and to travel it together.

When I read that the screenplay for American Gangster was written by Steve Zaillian, I approached this film with some trepidation. While it is true that Zaillian has written a couple of magnificent screenplays ("Awakenings", "Schindler's List"), he has also been responsible for bringing us "The Interpreter", one of the films that has been responsible for the slow death of Nicole Kidman's acting career, and "All the King's Men", the first film that I can honestly say that I had the overwhelming urge to "boo" when it screened at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival.

While American Gangster by no means represents a return to Zaillian's former glory, he has managed to create a screenplay that is interesting enough to hold the attention of its audience for most of its 2 1/2 hour running time. Weak at times in its plot and character development, it succeeds because of the ability of its principal actors to breathe enough life into the story that the audience is prepared to forgive (although not necessarily forget) the shortcomings of its screenplay.

The undisputed star of American Gangster is Denzel Washington. In Frank Lucas, he creates a character who is both coldly brutal and warmly sentimental, and he is credible wearing each of these faces. It is an award-calibre performance by Washington that I suspect will earn him at least a Golden Globe nomination.

Russell Crowe also delivers a strong performance, although it is one which fails to surpass his previous screen achievements. His performance in 3:10 to Yuma earlier this year was far superior. I do not necessarily fault Crowe for this shortfall. He was given far less material with which to work, his character development was, at best, nominal and, as between Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, Richie was the far less interesting of the two. The only thing that this performance established about Crowe is the fact that he is the master of foreign accents.

American Gangster is a gritty, realistic film about a notorious figure in the world of organized crime. Frank Lucas' story is an interesting cautionary tale about greed and integrity, and about the price that people pay in the pursuit of both ends. It is not the best gangster film that has ever been made, but it is worthy addition to the genre, and well worth a trip to the theatre.

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