Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian, Mark Jacobson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jnr, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lymari Nadal
Running time: 157 mins
Ridley Scott's take on the traditional gangster flick sees Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe dual onscreen with Oscar-potential performances and a sizzling storyline, based on a true story from '70s New York. It's 157 minutes long, but immerses its audience with its twists and intricacies as it plays out and considers the logistics and consequences of crime and police corruption, with a plethora of show-stealing performances from the cast.
American Gangster morphs together various classic film plots, with The Godfather, Scarface and Serpico being the most obvious influences on Scott's vision. Frank Lucas (Denzil Washington) is the driver for a New York gangster Bumpy Johnson, who decides to take over and build his own empire when his boss suddenly dies. He uses the fact that the US army are in Vietnam to import pure heroin on the cheap and undercuts the market with his own brand 'Blue Magic'. Lucas' ruthless nature and strict business mind ensure that he ends up not only becoming the biggest dealer in Harlem, but the biggest trafficker in the country.
Lucas' tale is intertwined with that of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a cop who insists in playing by the rule book, even when all his closest colleagues do the complete opposite. Roberts makes a name for himself by turning over a million dollars he finds in the back of a car, but alienates himself from his fellow officers. Outcast from his colleagues, he goes about solving the mystery behind the sudden rise in heroin sales with his own team of men, while also battling with his wife for the custody of his child.
The plot follows the traditional gangster movie format of an ordinary man who battles his way to the top via any means necessary, only for it all to come crashing down at his knees. Although we'll try and not give the climax of the film away, it won't come as a surprise to anyone that it involves a giant shoot-out and the demise of Lucas' empire. Based on a real-life story, Scott paints a grimy and gritty image of '70s America that manages to avoid tripping over into Scarface-style glamorisation and instead exposes the horrors and underbelly of Harlem life, created by the combination of corrupt authorities and Lucas' heroin business.
Washington's performance is the sort of thing that Oscar panels seem to adore these days and will no doubt be there or thereabouts come the golden gong season. His brooding presence throughout the film helps portray the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Lucas' character. Although Crowe's role is of equal importance in the movie, it's Washington's performance that you'll remember when you leave the cinema. There are few actors who could pull off a character with the complexities that Lucas has. Washington is entirely convincing as a man that plays the doting husband and all-round family man one minute, and a stone-cold street assassin the next. Lucas' unhinged moments, such as when his wife (Lymari Nadal) is shot at, and when he gives a man's cranium a rather brutal attack with a grand piano, are the sort of scenes that a Pacino or Pesci would have jumped at in the past. But it's unlikely either would have approached the role in such a measured tone.
Scott plays on the contrasting characters of Lucas and Roberts at various points in the movie. Both are intent on proving that their chosen careers are not corrupt and are based on values and decent principles. Lucas is a family man, who insists that he's never had to do anything wrong to get his drug campaign off the ground. But his actions show otherwise. Roberts meanwhile is a man that doesn't care about making a quick buck or fitting in with the force, because he always does what's right by the law. Yet despite his professional principles, his private life is filled with affairs and copious amounts of rumpy-pumpy. Crowe, while held back by a clunkier storyline than Washington, is also on great form and rolls back the years
Perhaps the most enjoyable part the movie is watching the set-pieces set up by Scott, which truly capture the heights of '70s excess and simultaneously the underbelly of deceit and crime that fuels it. Lucas' visit to the Ali-Frazier boxing match, the Starsky and Hutch-style cars, the pumping disco music and maybe most of all the club scenes are all a visual delight. But don't let this fool you into thinking this is a bog-standard, gun-totin' gangster flick, because it certainly isn't. While it's a bit heavy-handed on shoving morals down the audience's collective throat, its examination of two alpha-males' obsessiveness and drive for control is superbly executed and a decent addition to the now bulging canon of great American gangster films.