Sunday, November 18, 2007
In Theaters: American Gangster
AMERICAN GANGSTER has a very classical feel; it’s an old fashioned crime drama, straightforward and not too stylized. This is somewhat unusual for director Ridley Scott, but he’s got a good script and the nearly-impossible-to-fail-with pairing of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe (I haven’t seen VIRTUOSITY so can’t comment on just how reliable the team-up is), and generally works in service of the story more than anything else. It’s a grand showcase for talents both in front of and behind the camera, and avoids sensationalism, taking a more naturalistic approach to the protagonist’s rise to power. There have been complaints that the film changes and even sanitizes the Frank Lucas story to make him look better than he was, but I think by this point we’ve established that I don’t care about that sort of thing.
We first meet Frank Lucas (Washington) when he’s working as the driver for Harlem kingpin Bumpy Johnson (apparently not credited, but I’m dead certain it’s Clarence Williams III). When Johnson dies, the area becomes open territory for all the other New York mobsters, big and small time, and Lucas decides to try and assume Johnson’s mantle. He hits upon the idea of directly buying his supply of heroin from growers in Southeast Asia, taking advantage of the turmoil of the Vietnam War and having the army help ship his stuff in. Lucas’ product, branded as “Blue Magic”, is purer and more potent than anything anyone else is selling, and he can provide it at a lower price, cornering the market very quickly. Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Crowe), a Jersey cop, has run into trouble because of his refusal to share in the taking of drug money that’s become rampant in the force- since he won’t partake, he can’t be trusted not to rat on his fellow officers, and is made a bit of a pariah. He’s offered a position at the slightly more ethical anti-drug task force being set up by the Nixon administration. As he starts looking into
the U.S. heroin trade, he starts to notice the figure of Frank Lucas, and wonder just what role he plays.
The majority of the film focuses on Frank’s life as a kingpin, which is less sleazy than you’d expect. He treats the whole thing like a legitimate business, emphasizing the importance of “Blue Magic” as a brand name and making sure its quality isn’t diluted by the middle men. He brings his mother (Ruby Dee) and brothers up from North Carolina and sets his siblings up in town with various business that act as fronts for drug distribution. He makes sure they don’t dress or act too ostentatiously, trying to avoid the appearance of gangsterism even though he lives well and buys his mother a mansion and marries Miss Puerto Rico (as played by Lymari Nadal). The skill with which he keeps his activity secret is half the fun, but at the same time he sees himself as a kind of community leader in the Bumpy Johnson mold. We also see a lot of Roberts’ troubled personal life as his devotion to his work crosses the line from selfless to self-destroying. The contrast is obvious- good work is costly, banal evil has rewards. But the two people aren’t entirely different, and when they finally do meet they find themselves able to arrive at an agreement.
Steven Zaillian’s screenplay effortlessly bounds across the globe and across events, keeping the action moving at a good clip even though there’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s not necessarily a fast movie, but it is efficient, showing us Frank’s operation and the investigation into it in compelling step-by-step montages. As serious as the proceedings are, there’s something genuinely fun about this; it’s smart stuff, understandable without being dumbed down. The strange moral ambiguity of the film also works in its favor. We understand, and are shown, that Lucas is dealing in a vile and reprehensible trade with a long human cost, but the appearance of social responsibility and entrepreneurship he puts on his business, especially in relation to his family and the Harlem community, makes us almost want him to get away with it. At the same time there’s no denying the fierce intelligence and persistence Roberts shows in trying to pin down the operation. (There’s also the presence of Josh Brolin as an extremely crooked New York cop who is pretty much equally a jerk to both sides.) The film’s racial subtext, heavily played up in the trailers, isn’t quite as prominent as you’d think, but there’s no denying that part of what makes Lucas’ story unique and himself an odd antihero is that he was a black man beating the overwhelmingly white Mafia at their own game.
Washington and Crowe don’t actually share a lot of screen time, but they do have one big conversation in which the sheer intelligence of both characters is on full display. Washington makes Lucas a man of hidden depths, always with a number of things on his mind at once, while Crowe brings his usual intensity. Scott does an excellent job letting both actors play to their strengths, and there are some great supporting performances as well (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s amazing taste in projects continues, and he appears here as one of Frank’s brothers.) We even get a brief appearance by Cuba Gooding, Jr., which may go a long way towards redeeming his image after films like SNOW DOGS and BOAT TRIP.
It’s hard to articulate what makes this movie work so well, which may explain why I’m still working on it a week after seeing the film. It’s simply really, really good; it’s a solid story, neatly laid out, well-acted, well-filmed, working slickly and engaging the viewer on an emotional and intellectual level. There is no one thing you can really point to about it (apart from Washington and Crowe being brilliant actors, and everyone knows that already), but somehow this is one of the best films of the year. Trust me.
Based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson
Written by Steven Zaillian
Directed by Ridley Scott