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American Gangster

December 15, 2011

American Gangster (2007)
Director: Ridley Scott
Actors: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin

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Synopsis: In the Seventies, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) establishes himself as the biggest drug lord of Harlem – and much of New York – by ingeniously importing heroine direct from the killing fields of Vietnam. A keen business mind and rigid discipline keeps Frank off the radar of the NYPD until he is noticed as an ostentatious guest at the Ali-Frazier boxing match. Cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) begins to unpick Frank’s drug dynasty, and is eventually able to make an arrest.

Review: Ridley Scott goes all out for the iconic and mythic – as betrayed by the very grandiose title “American Gangster” – in this wannabe sprawling portrayal of the criminal life of Seventies’ Harlem drug king, Frank Lucas. By ‘mythic’, what Scott actually does is pay homage to or rip off (take your pick), other much better gangster movies from the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. It really does feel extremely familiar – from the retro cliché (the costumes, hairstyles and soundtrack) to the classic ‘rise and fall’ structure of a criminal who moves from modest beginnings to early, meteoric success, before a moment of hubris leads him to the inevitable fall and angsty isolation (replete with a broody Denzel Washington sat in front of a fire, ruefully sipping on a whisky, ignoring his beautiful wife…)

Ultimately, what’s wrong with American Gangster is that Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian simply don’t know what story they’re trying to tell. They have this fascinating raw material of a man’s criminal career but are content simply to reprise it all in gangster stereotype, rather than homing in on an specific narrative slant. The mirroring of Washington’s drug lord with Russell Crowe’s equally obsessive cop is rather lazy and over-familiar from the ‘kindred spirit’ thesis of many a Michael Mann film. Where the story actually ends (huge spoiler alert) – Frank Lucas finally being released from prison as a middle-aged man in the early Nineties – might have been a more interesting area to develop and how that juxtaposes to his time as a super-criminal, but clearly the ‘rise and fall’ trajectory of the gangster genre was too irresistible to Scott. (December 2011)

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