REVIEW: American Gangster

Minor Spoilers, the movie however IS based on real events.

Hey, look! An R-rated hit? What the hell happened? Well, turns out you CAN talk an audience into an intelligent, worthwhile film after all… providing, of course, that you’ve got huge stars, a huge director, a reliable genre and most-importantly NOTHING to do whatsoever with anything current: Mr. & Mrs. America are, demonstrably, ignoring Iraq, terrorism etc. for free at home, so why expect that they PAY to ignore it in theatres?

Sorry, sorry. Rant. And unfair to “American Gangster,” which really is an excellent film that you should see right away. Just already profoundly sick of the current meme that the welcome and incredibly pleasing success of “Gangster” is some kind of concrete confirmation of the idea that Da Folks’ ignoring of the fall Adult Dramas so far was based on some noteworthy political reaction to “the liberal media” as opposed to the usual Ostrich Impersonation. Give me a break. Yes, good, an Oscar-worthy crime epic from Ridley Scott throttled a Dreamworks Animation celebrity-voiced family-movie cash-in, fantastic news – but, sorry, this hardly absolves The American Filmgoer for “Transformers.” Broken clocks and all that. Good first step, though. No question. But y’wanna really impress me? Let’s see this kind of turnout for “No Country For Old Men” this weekend (OVER “Fred Claus”) or “Beowulf” the week after that. THEN we might have something here.

Deep breath.

Okay, so then, to “American Gangster.” Let’s be brutally honest, people: Ridley Scott directing Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in an epic biopic about the rise and fall of a 1970s Harlem drug kingpin (Washington) and the no-nonsense cop out to catch him (Crowe.) Was there ever really a question of whether or not this would be any good… or was it merely a question of HOW good? Would it be “Goodfellas” perfection or “The Departed” great? High expectations can be a killer, but this time you can rest easy: It’s very, very good.

Ridley Scott is one of those directors, along with Peter Weir, James Cameron and others, who frequently excells at the often difficult task of making genuine artistic achievements out of “guy movies:” Taking subject matter (gladiators, soldiers, sailors, gangsters, cowboys, etc.) that can and usually does get by just on testosterone and blunt-force bravado (looking at YOU, “300”) and infusing it with actual intellect and gravitas. Got a “man’s man” in your life? Chances are Ridley Scott directed one of his favorite movies.

Speaking of which, got a guy in your life who’s DEVOTED to hard-bitten crime movies (i.e. he owns one or more pieces of merchandise related to “Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “Scarface” etc that’s NOT a copy of the movie itself)? Say hello to his new favorite movie for at least the next year. This is going to be a big, big, sustained hit – and even bigger on DVD. Within two years, rappers will be acting out scenes from it in videos, and probably within one wannabe “gangstas” will be dressing like Washington’s Frank Lucas as THE new “urban trend.” Trust me on that.

The clothes, y’see, are a vitally important part of Lucas’ character and his operation: Formerly the driver and confidant to legendary Harlem crime kingpin Bumpy Johnson (himself the subject of the under-appreciated “Hoodlum” years ago,) Lucas calculates that he can work more successfully and more securely than any other Harlem boss before him by acting more like a businessman than a crook. So he eschews the flashy clothes and jewelry of other black gangsters (“that’s a big sign that says ‘ARREST ME!,'” he tells an underling) and takes a basic capitalist approach to his goal of wresting control of Harlem’s heroin trade from the Italian mob; traveling directly to Vietnam to score pure “Blue Magic” powder from the source and smuggling it back under cover of the U.S. Army. He moves his extended family, mother and all, up from South Carolina to join the team in a sprawling New Jersey manor, marries a Puerto Rican beauty queen and – for awhile there – manages to dominate the entire game (even the mafia!) so unassumingly that it isn’t until he turns up with good seats and a chinchilla coat (the wife’s idea) at a Muhammed Ali fight that the special police task force investigating HIS operation even knows he exists at all.

Leading that task force is Richie Roberts, (Crowe) a cop who’d rather be a lawyer who takes up running the special squad when his unflappable honesty (he found a million dollars unmarked in a suspects car and turned it in) makes him a pariah in the ultra-corrupt department. As it happens, in fact, the dirty cops are more the villians of the piece than Lucas is – in particular a New York alpha male detective (Josh Brolin) determined to make sure Lucas knows his place and rough Roberts up enough so that that place remains unthreatened.

It’s not so much that the film breaks a lot of new ground (it doesn’t) as it is that it works the genre and these new players IN it exceedingly well: We’ve seen Washington’s slick no-nonsense hardcase before, just as we’ve seen class-act gangsters like Frank Lucas before – we’ve just never seen them worked into the same organism, and the result is dynamite. Likewise, Crowe’s honest-to-a-fault Richie Roberts owes a lot to Crowe’s honest-to-a-fault Jim Braddock (the “Cinderella Man”) – and it’s doubly interesting how much sense this style from this actor makes transplanted into a schlubby 1970s street-cop archetype. See also: Just when you think the “montage of criminal process set to iconic period music” bit has been done and redone to oblivion, here’s Ridley Scott and company to prove you wrong with a bravura stunner to the tune of “Across 110th Street.”

It also has to be noted, for whatever it’s worth, that while this isn’t the first film to try and create – for lack of a better word, “the Black Godfather” (this would include the film actually CALLED “The Black Godfather”) it IS probably the first one to genuinely succeed: Frank Lucas emerges instantly as one of the all-time Hollywood gangsters, black or otherwise. For better or worse, he’s an American original – and the film’s repeating theme of his remarkable capitalist instincts are already reverberating into the real world: Still alive, (though confined to a wheelchair,) and not prohibited from profiting from his criminal history since he was convicted before the “Son of Sam Laws” were passed, the real Frank Lucas is to launch – what else? – a “gangster” clothing line. American Gangster, indeed.


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