American Gangster (DVD, 2009) Reviews
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American Gangster (DVD, 2009)

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A very well-made period cops and drug-kingpin movie

Jun 23, 2008
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:period background, Crowe, soundtrack that stays out of the foreground, no glamorization of drugs

Cons:very long with underdeveloped black characters and too many shots of needles

The Bottom Line: Hyper-competent -- like "Heat" and "Casino", not groundbreaking as "The Godfather", "Goodfellas", or either version of "Scarface" were


Ridley Scott has shot over 2000 commercials, so one might think he might make lean movies. One would be mistaken! His movies have strong visuals, for sure (Alien, Black Hawk Down, Blade Runner, the little-known The Duelists, etc.) and often have suspenseful sequences. Short they are not. (Compensating for his being short himself, perhaps?)

"American Gangster" (2007) runs 176 minutes (in the unrated director's (un)cut DVD version; the theatrical release ran 157, which was already quite long). Other than the frequency with which it shows needles breaking skin, I don't think that there is anything original in the movie. It is set in the era in which the first two "Godfather" movies were made, which was also the era of blaxploitation movies and the gritty police movies "The French Connection" and "Serpico."

Part of the reason "American Gangster" is too long is that it has two story arcs that were shot separately then intercut with each other. The Big Stars, Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, don't meet for something like two and a half hours (in the 176-minute version that I watched). Each is very good in his movie and they are good together (like Michael Mann's "Heat" with the long wait in it until Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino sit down together).

Crowe plays a painfully honest New Jersey cop, Detective Richie Roberts, who between conscientious work and going to law school at night has no time for family life (he reminds me of Helen Mirren's Inspector Jane Tennison in many ways). Richie astounds and freaks out his coworkers by turning in a million dollars in unmarked bills (a million 1970 dollars--equivalent to maybe five million in Bush-debased currency). Someone who would do that would turn in crooked cops is the inference they draw--rightly.

Heading a special federal drug task force in New Jersey, Richie almost immediately runs afoul of New York City narcotics agents who are heavily on the take, Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) in particular

Meanwhile, up in Harlem, Denzel Washington at his most resolute and cold-blooded is playing Frank Lucas. At the start of the movie, Frank is the driver and bodyguard of Harlem's criminal "mayor" Bumpy Johnson, who dies bemoaning middlemen being cut out.

Frank decided to cut out Italian Mafia middleman, going to the Golden Triangle to purchase pure heroin and getting it transported to the US in coffins that flow back from the difficult-to-terminate military adventure of an earlier Texan US president. Franks pays off the regular police hierarchy, from the chief down to the beat vice cops, but not the "special" drug cops headed by Detective Trupo.

Eventually, there will be a very interesting "The enemy of my enemy should be my friend" discussion. Richie and Frank both detest mafiosi and, even more, crooked cops. Both have lots and lots and lots of enemies. Richie's include uniformed and civilian members of the US military who do not want the role of the US military in importing heroin to the US revealed. (Not that Frank wants this revealed either!)

There are a lot of twists and turns in the rise to the top of their respective worlds of Frank and Richie, and some bravura camera work, including some lengthy shots and montages as intricate as those in the first "Godfather" movie.

There is a lot of top-rate work by a lot of professionals on display in this movie. Though I had not seen the movie in its theatrical release, I was rooting for Ruby Dee to win the best supporting actress Oscar because she is Ruby Dee. Having now seen the movie, I have to admit that her performance is not particularly special. She has one confrontation scene, but it is very brief and she barely speaks in the other scenes in which she and Washington and/or the large family (five sons) appear. I don't think that Tilda Swinton was particularly outstanding in "Michael Clayton" either, but at least she registered (and both have done far better work on screen).

Having also just seen Russell Crowe as the criminal gang leader (Ben Wade) opposite the incorruptible Christian Bale in "3:10 to Yuma," which also came out last summer, I was impressed again by Crowe. Celebrated an actor as he is, I think that he still is underappreciated. (As far as Oscars go, Crowe received one for the wrong movie, Ridley Scott's mediocre "Gladiator" rather than for "The Insider" or "A Beautiful Mind" -- BAFTA and the Golden Globes got it righter, though still not, IMO, right.)

I don't think that Washington (with two Oscars for two genuinely outstanding performances) is underappreciated. I would not accuse him of "phoning in" his performance in (as) "American Gangster," but I don't think that the part makes many demands on him. He has to look stalwart, hold his temper sometimes, and kill in cold blood at others. Speak softly, carry a big rod, and hire a big family as vice presidents of the enterprise he builds... The script provides not the slightest chance for him to show any ambivalence to the lives his product ruins.

In the thankless role of the wife who enjoys the loot but not being shot at and having the mansion invaded by police, Carla Gugino looks pretty but is little more than a prop. (It is also difficult to tell whether this is attributable to the script providing only a very stock character or to phoning in the role.)

Ted Levine and Cuba Gooding, Jr. make screen time memorable as, respectively, Rich's boss and Frank's main Harlem heroin kingpin rival.

The two versions of the movie filling one disc, bonus features are on a second one. The "making of" material seems pretty standard (except in its length/abundance: in five parts, totaling 75 minutes). I found the part on providing period-sounding music particularly interesting, and (of course!) the interviews of the real Frank Lucas and the real Richie Roberts. There are two superfluous deleted scenes (I guess this shows some editing wisdom, though I'd have lopped off more, including the congenial/collegial ending of the director's (un)cut.

© 2008, Stephen O. Murray



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