American Gangster Review
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe… Dream Team or Nightmare, you decide! For every Gladiator (good), there’s A Good Year (frankly abysmal). But thank the Lord and the little Baby Jesus, American Gangster falls happily into the first camp.
Frank Lucas (Washington) is a driver for Bumpy Johnson, who basically rules Harlem in the 1970s. Bumpy is a good manager; he sees Frank’s promise and mentors him, grooming him to take over his business; when Bumpy dies, Frank is poised to become the Godfather of Harlem. He has watched the Italian families, and when his time comes he imitates their business methods. Frank sets out to bring the heroin trade under his control, He markets his heroin as a brand, developing consumer trust; he surrounds himself with his family, and keeps them close, and, most importantly, he resists the temptation of flash clothes and fancy cars. He keeps a low profile, impeccably dressed but nothing fancy.
Richie (Crowe) is an undercover police officer with an exemplary record and a complicated home life. His refusal to take bribes and kickbacks, or to skim money from the force has made him unpopular amongst the other men, who consider it a perk of the job. But then a new supply of heroin floods the streets of New York, Richie is invited to form a sort of Untouchables – his own squad of trusted men, with whom he will work to find the source.
American Gangster is a deliberately old-fashioned film that echoes the great New York stories of the 1970s – The French Connection, the Godfather films – and does so elegantly and effectively. Denzel Washington is urbane as ever as Frank Lucas, the modern gangster, living the American dream by dealing smack. Frank might be a drug dealer but he loves his momma and goes to church; the irony of this inconsistency is underwritten in a scene where Scott cuts from the Lucas mansion, with the family tucking into Thanksgiving dinner while junkies die in the slums of Manhattan. Richie on the other hand is an exemplary police officer but he’s still friends with gangsters from his youth, a fact that his ex-wife is using against him in their custody battle; he also sleeps with anything in a skirt (though why they want to sleep with him is anyone’s guess; Crowe is paunchy and badly dressed throughout).
Just as Al Capone is eventually bought down on charges of income tax evasion, Frank is finally implicated through the silliest of things; his wife buys him a chinchilla pimp coat and hat and to please her he wears them to a boxing match. And suddenly he’s visible to everyone, no longer flying under the radar. At first Richie’s bosses refuse to believe him; they don’t believe that a black man is capable of running an organisation like Frank is, like a proper Mafia family; their casual racism allows Frank a bigger window than he might otherwise have had, but it’s bigger world events – the end of the Vietnam War – that change things forever.
American Gangster is a return to form for Ridley Scott, an enjoyable, entertaining and accomplished piece of filmmaking, though not quite the iconic piece of work promised by the title.
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