Film: American Gangster
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin
Director Ridley Scott has strewn a long line of classic genre movies across our movie screens throughout the years, from sci-fi (Blade Runner) and horror (Alien) to historical epic (Gladiator), war movie (Black Hawk Down) and road movie (Thelma and Louise). Now comes his eagerly-awaited stab at the gangster genre. Set in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, it features Denzel Washington as a ruthless and brutal crime-lord, Frank Lucas. Washington clearly hasn’t relished a part this much since we saw him scoop a deserved Academy Award for Training Day, and his zeal for the story is infectious. Lucas is a diligent and brutal ‘businessman’, who rises to the top of the drug-dealing trade in 1960’s Harlem by cutting out the middle-man, precariously buying heroin straight from a South East Asian source and smuggling vast quantities into the US in the coffins of dead soldiers. Set against Lucas’ extravagant persona is Russell Crowe in a more refined, but by no means less layered role; detective-in-hot-pursuit Richie Robbins, who struggles both against Lucas’ ruthless scheming and a wider climate of corruption within the NYPD.
Scott makes every effort to draw parallels between these two seemingly adverse protagonists. Robbins is a detective with a moral code: an outsider, surrounded by cops ‘on the take’. Similarly, the man he’s chasing, Lucas, has a strict, if twisted, business ethic. Lucas shows the highest contempt for the NYPD’s method of extortion – confiscating drug stashes and selling them back to the dealers. He dismisses the whole force as ‘crooks’. Lucas and Robbins both believe in upholding certain rules and ethical codes; Lucas even refers to trademark infringement of his ‘brand’ of heroin.
Washington’s gleeful portrayal of Lucas is the mainstay of the movie. “Business is about honesty, integrity, hard work, family…,” he intones, before striding across the road to calmly put a bullet in the head of a fellow dealer and striding back to finish his coffee. As in all the great gangster movies, his character is awash with such moral ambiguity, and Washington juggles his complex ambivalence with real aplomb.
I did leave, however, with a few niggling doubts. Having such similar characters at the centre of the film makes for tense drama, but it must be noted that the tenet is not an entirely original one; most notably it features in Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’, but it is a generally familiar device. That wouldn’t really matter though, if the rest of the film didn’t seem so darned familiar too. It echoes large chunks of Serpico, Goodfellas and the French Connection.
Ultimately, however, it’s the visual flair and compelling acting that commend this picture, not its originality. Scott’s trademarks – atmosphere, visual style and tension – are all there. It’s a picture so beautifully composed and produced that every scene seeps with grandeur. Although Frank Lucas represents the rise of the black entrepreneur of the ‘70s, he is still just another charismatic-dictator figure: as Ridley points out as he cuts between flashes of Lucas scoffing a gourmet meal at his country house, while back in Harlem his ‘customers’ wallow and decay in the thrall of addiction and desperation.
In short, this is a great return to the gangster epic. Its unfortunate shortcoming is that it will pale in its inevitable comparison to those timeless mob movies.