Back Shelf Beauties
by Willie Waffle

American Gangster 

When you hear Denzel and Crowe are in the same movie, it sounds like a showdown for the ages, like DeNiro taking on Pacino, but American Gangster never gives you that amazing explosion you might be expecting (kind of like when DeNiro and Pacino got together in Heat).  It’s just a solid film instead of being legendary, which is nothing to be ashamed of.  

Denzel Washington stars as Frank Lucas – an ambitious crime lord in late 1960’s and early 1970’s Harlem.  To reach the pinnacle of his business, Frank has established his own source of the best heroin he can sell on the streets, and structured his distribution and supply lines to minimize costs, keep his prices down and dominate the drug trade in New York (He’s like Wal-Mart, but evil in an illegal way).  Before you know it, he is the king of crime and has more power than the Mafia (I don’t dare insert a Wal-Mart joke there).  However, a similarly ambitious cop, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), has been put in charge of a special unit looking to attack the illegal drug trade, and he quickly realizes he must bring down Frank to achieve that goal. 

Will Richie be able to put Frank in jail?  Will the corrupt cops or Mafia get to one of them first?      

American Gangster is a good film, even a very good film, but doesn’t quite live up to the hype.  However, that fact doesn’t make the movie a failure.

Director Ridley Scott and writer Steve Zaillian (based on a New Yorker article by Mark Jacobson) do a very good job giving us plenty of information about Roberts and Lucas, showing each one rising through the ranks of his respective profession, but American Gangster takes a while to get going.  I like how Scott is trying to show the parallel rise of Roberts and Lucas, as well as contrast the glamorous and rich lifestyle of the criminal versus the working class struggles of the lawman, but we don’t get into the battle between them until later in the film.  It’s a movie that needs more complexity, intrigue, action, danger and energy a little bit earlier.  We know these two are on a collision course, so let’s get on the path a bit sooner.    

Sadly, one of the biggest surprises in the movie, and one Scott tries to build up to throughout the film, is something you probably already know if you have seen one interview, one commercial or heard one piece of the Frank Lucas story.  Scott tries to work up to a “shocking” revelation of how Frank gets the heroin into the country, but most of us already know, so it’s not as shocking as it should be.  I guess Scott didn’t realize this would be such public knowledge this early into the film’s run, but he got a bit burned by it.   

Meanwhile, Washington is very good, but has some scenes where he’s hamming it up a bit, usually when angry or giving us the traditional Denzel laugh.  He’s strong as Washington makes it clear to the audience how Frank changes, grows more paranoid and starts to treat people differently as he rises to power, while Crowe is the standout performer as the cop with all sorts of personal problems, a strong sense of self and a dedication to ethics that could be his salvation or downfall.  He does a great job making us realize Roberts is a tough opponent, no matter how badly his personal life is falling apart.     

The last 10 – 15 minutes takes away from American Gangster no matter how true it might be, but it doesn’t ruin the movie.  

3 Waffles (Out of 4)

American Gangster is rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality

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