The A-list pedigree that surrounds the big, brawny piece of entertainment, AMERICAN GANGSTER, is a formidable group. Directed by Ridley Scott (ALIEN, GLADIATOR, BLACK HAWK DOWN), produced by Brian Grazer (APPOLLO 13, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 8 MILE), written by Steven Zaillian (SCHINDLER’S LIST, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER, THE FALCON & THE SNOWMAN), and starring powerhouse actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, it would have been a shocking surprise if AMERICAN GANGSTER had turned out to be anything less than spectacular. I am pleased to report that not only is the film one of the best of the year, it’s one of the most flat-out entertaining, big-budget Hollywood crime epics in recent memory. Everything from the top-notch production values, the larger-than-life story, the phenomenal dialogue, and the sly, cool aesthetic of Scott and master cinematographer Harris Savides (ZODIAC, BIRTH, ELEPHANT) all combine for a thrilling true-crime saga that never sags once during its two hour and forty minute run time.
Denzel Washington, in one of his best performances, is Frank Lucas, a smart and classy businessman whose business, it turns out, is heroin. Lots of it. Lucas, who for years was a driver and protégé to Harlem’s original gangster number one, Bumpy Johnson (a sneering Clarence Williams III), takes over the drug trade in New York City after Johnson drops dead from a heart attack. However, Lucas has bigger plans than Johnson could have ever imagined. After recruiting what seems to be almost all of his extended family from North Carolina (mother, brothers, cousins, etc) and relocating them to Harlem and surrounding hoods, Lucas, in an effort to avoid using a middle-man in his drug operation, used a family connection stretching to the jungles of Vietnam, and traveled to the heart of darkness himself, striking a deal with a heroin manufacturer to bring the drug from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the streets of New York. The potency of this heroin was twice as strong, and with the absence of the middle man, half as expensive. This bold maneuvering is made possible by crooked military personnel, who shipped the drugs back to the states in a variety of methods, most notoriously, in the coffins of dead American soldiers. It’s too wild to be true, but it is.
Running on a parallel track to Lucas’s story is the story of honest-cop Richie Roberts, smoothly under played by bull-dog performer Russell Crowe, in another excellent piece of manly acting. Roberts is the classic case of great cop, bad husband/father. Going through a messy divorce and child custody hearings with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino, super sexy as always), Roberts is as much of a screw up at home as he is a great, truthful cop, in an otherwise almost totally corrupt police force. The fact that he doesn’t keep $1 million in unmarked drug-money that he finds in a dealers car, opting to turn it in as police evidence, is enough to mark him as suspect by his fellow police officers, which doesn’t help him as he moves into the tricky waters of New York City’s drug scene. Roberts catches wind of the new drug trade in the city, and takes it on obsessively. Battling a seriously crooked cop named Trupo, played with menacing glee by Josh Brolin, Roberts is almost a one-man task force; not only is he battling the drug dealers, he has to watch his back for deceitful detectives who’d rather take bribes than make arrests.
The brilliance of Zaillian’s screenplay is the way that the personal and professional lives of Lucas and Roberts mirror each other, while also being total opposites. Lucas is a family man, the kind of guy who takes his mother to church on Sunday and eats breakfast with all of his brothers. But he’s also the kind of guy who’ll shoot a rival dealer in the head in broad daylight. He’s even not afraid to threaten his brothers and cousins to make a point. Roberts, on the other hand, is a terrible dad and husband, but he operates incredibly as a cop and he loves his job. He even makes time to study for and then take the bar exam. I was reminded of Michael Mann’s masterwork HEAT with the back-and-forth of these characters; similar to Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino’s characters in HEAT, Washington and Crowe are basically the same people, separated by opposite sides of the law, but brought together by a common goal—what they know best.
AMERICAN GANGSTER, working almost as two movies in one, allows its two stars to meet, only at the end, also similar to HEAT, in a terrific sequence where the two men have an intelligent conversation, rather than a bloody smack-down. Zaillian, no stranger to expensive, populist fare (he’s written HANNIBAL, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, CLEAR & PRESENT DANGER) is also a master words-man and social commentary purveyor (his other credits include A CIVIL ACTION, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and AWAKENINGS) and the balance that he brings to both stories in AMERICAN GANGSTER is nothing short of amazing. Cohesive and engrossing, the story’s narrative moves at a clip, due also in part to Pietro Scalia’s dynamic film editing, for almost three hours, introducing the audience to a bevy of colorful characters and various locations (jungles, city streets, drug houses). I wanted more when the lights were coming up.
Scott directs with energy and 70’s flavor, but never becomes show-offy or garish. Less overtly stylish than his work in GLADIATOR and BLACK HAWK DOWN, Scott gives AMERICAN GANGSTER a shadowy, smoky, rich look; the immaculate production design by frequent collaborator Arthur Max is a major help as well. Taking cues from such crime films as Brian De Palma’s SCARFACE and THE UNTOUCHABLES, Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, and Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER, Scott takes this familiar genre and spices it up in new ways, never forgetting about the fascinating procedural at the heart of the story. It’s masterful direction of an ambitious script which never loses sight of its tight focus, even when its grander world view is so vividly displayed. That’s the genius of Scott as a director. Similar to what he achieved in his director’s cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking, Scott infuses AMERICAN GANGSTER with enough vibrant period detail for two movies, but never allows his obsession with realistic surroundings to interfere with the intimate moments of his layered plot. He also stages a bravura drug raid/shootout that is the very definition of riveting. Bloody but never gory and gritty at all times, it’s a stunning piece of action directing that ranks up there with the best of these types of set pieces.
I’ll admit that I love crime films and I love Ridley Scott's filmmaking technique so I was probably predisposed to liking AMERICAN GANGSTER. That being said, the undeniable artistry on just about every level of filmmaking that’s displayed in the film is simply incredible to behold; it’s the king of big-ticket entertainment that only a craftsman of Scott’s stature could create. I look forward to watching the film for a second time. I loved every second of it.