I think it’s fair to say the gangster crime drama is back.
While Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” isn’t quite at the level as last year’s Oscar-winner “The Departed,” it comes close at times and
provides a brilliantly entertaining and intelligent film.
Coming off the worst-reviewed film of his career (the putrid “A Good Year”), Scott returns to the period drama that he does so well and
“American Gangster” is the story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the man who, for all intents and purposes, owned Harlem through
drug trafficking in the 1970s. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is the Boy Scout cop assigned to bring him down.
It’s a simple enough setup, but executed very well. Scott’s direction could have been the typical, and now clichéd, gritty affair we expect
from this genre, but he allows the actors, locations, and set pieces to shine. There are even some downright beautiful shots captured by
cinematographer Harry Savides. You won’t find any over-the-top hand-held camera work here.
But perhaps the most obvious area where this film excels is the acting. Washington and Crowe are two of the finest actors of the modern
day and both turn in excellent, award-worthy performances.
Both characters are given nearly equal screen time and get to fully flesh out their characters because of Steve Zaillian’s screenplay. In
fact, Zaillian’s script is so devoted to developing the characters, it hurts the film.
At 157 minutes the film is longer than it needs to be, and somewhat bloated with scenes involving Richie Roberts’ divorce hearings, which
really doesn’t add a whole lot. It does serve to show the contrast between the good guy cop’s chaotic personal life, and the sociopath
gangster’s almost idyllic family, but just isn’t necessary.
Of the two characters, Lucas is not surprisingly the more interesting as he provides the means for much of his community to decimate itself
without an ounce of regret.
But don’t think that “American Gangster” is an exercise in acting. There are no obnoxiously tacked-on “Oscar bait” speeches or crying
scenes. This is first and foremost an entertaining crime drama with good humor, great characters, and solid direction.
It may not be able to match “The Departed” in thrills, but “American Gangster” is a very good film that falls just short of excellence. It is one
of the best films of the year.
* * * 1/2
(out of four)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh
Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Carla Gugino, Ruby Dee
Cinematography by: Harris Savides
Music by: Marc Streitenfeld
Released: November 2, 2007; 160 Minutes