Monday, November 12, 2007

How to be an American Gangster


By Cody Quinn
Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe sit down for a little chat.
Photo courtesy of Yahoo! Movies

To call Frank Lucas (a stellar Denzel Washington) a gangster would be an understatement. In the lore spelled out in Ridley Scott’s new crime drama, American Gangster, Lucas is a vicious businessman who brings all new meaning to kill or be killed ethics.

Gangster is a gripping tale of Lucas’ rise to the top of the underworld on a wave of cheap but high quality heroin. Intermixed with the violence and family life inherent in any criminal enterprise is Russell Crowe, who plays Detective Richie Roberts. If you weren’t sure Roberts is Jewish, the large gold Star of David around his neck is a pretty good hint.

Both actors are at the top of their game in this movie, splitting plot and screen time like the seminal movie Heat did. The two Oscar-winning actors don’t even meet until the obligatory arrest near the film’s end.

Washington gets the meatier of the two roles. He plays Lucas as man who knows how to build a criminal empire, but also knows that the nature of crime and corruption never lends itself to lasting endeavors. Lucas struggles to keep the threads together as long as he can, and he foresees the end to his enterprise long before it occurs. Washington plays Lucas as a man knowingly over his head, but never afraid to take what he wants.

Crowe makes the most out of his detective scenes, and you really get a sense of the difficulty of police work when corruption is near its peak, but he gets bogged down in family moments. Roberts, being a hard working and honest policeman, must divorce his wife (Carla Gugino doing what she has to) and get into a custody battle, as all honest policemen must.

These scenes take away from the main and more interesting part of the movie: Lucas’ rise to power. The end lets us know that Lucas was worth at least $250 million, but you never get a good sense of how large his empire really is. Everything is kept at street level, which lets us see Washington at his most vicious but doesn’t let us appreciate how much Lucas really accomplished.

Scott keeps things moving at a brisk pace, barring a few family court scenes and Robert’s personal problems, and the film is prettily dressed in seventies era clothes, music, and scenery. Add some interesting turns for Cuba Gooding Junior and Josh Brolin, plus eye candy Lymari Nadal as Lucas’ wife, and the whole is pretty good.

However, to be critical (and that’s my job), the ending eerily echoes Catch Me if You Can and leaves you wondering about what the real life characters are doing now. American Gangster is not necessarily the next The Departed, but it’s the best crime move since The Departed.

Concession Stand Equivalent: Milk Duds. Sweet inside and out, but the more you chew on it, the harder it goes down.

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