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American Gangster December 4, 2007

Posted by Sai in English, Movies, Reviews.
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This Ridley Scott film featuring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe is based on the real story of Harlem drug lord, Frank Lucas, who rose from the position of a driver to that of a powerful gangster. The film focusses on Lucas’ growth as well as his eventual downfall brought about by detective Richie Roberts, who is featured in a parallel track (both Lucas and Roberts were apparently consultants for this film and according to the former, only a fifth of this film is actually true).

Thought most critics liked this film and it had a good time at the box office, thanks to the star power of Washington and Crowe, this film falls a tad short in terms of matching my expectations. There are a lot of good things about this film but it has its flaws too. The primary flaw in my opinion is the lack of impact in the first hour of the film. It could be the narration or the familiarity of the terrain but the set up isn’t exciting. The early part of the film feels like two different stories with the parallel tracks between Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas (that merge together much later). Scott tries to provide a contrast here between the characters but I don’t think some of the scenes added much to the film. A lot of Richie’s early scenes like the ones involving his wife or his sex drive are expendable even though they add an interesting shade to his honest cop character. Scott and his screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) should have identified an alternate way to achieve this. Also, this is a long film by Hollywood standards at over two and a half hours and is lacking in conventional entertainment (humor is almost absent, there is no action to speak of, there are no confrontations between the stars except at the end and more). Though I prefer to look at these as choices made by the director rather than flaws, part of the audience may dislike the film for these reasons.

This film is clearly the story of Frank Lucas and there is no question about that. This means that the audience needs to empathize with the Lucas character. Scott and Washington manage to achieve this to a large extent. However, what bothers me is that I didn’t really buy the scenes depicting Lucas’ viciousness. They convey what they intend to but it doesn’t seem in tune with what my mind imagined Lucas to be based on everything else that was depicted. To me, he still was more the suave, sophisticated, smart and calculated businessman than a vicious criminal who doesn’t think twice before pulling a trigger. While Scott misses a trick in his execution of these sequences, Washington also doesn’t do enough to sell the bad guy aspect of it. Except for this minor hiccup, Washington delivers a compelling performance. Russell Crowe, on the other hand, gets a role that isn’t half as interesting as Washington’s. However, he manages to hit the right notes on all the aspects of his character and deliver an equally, if not more, commendable performance. The acting in this film is of high standard and the supporting cast is effective too.

The first time I saw the trailer of American Gangster (set to Jay-Z’s Heart of the City, which really gelled with it), I was hoping it would be this year’s equivalent of The Departed. Though the comparison maybe unwarranted, this isn’t half the kick-ass movie that one was. Despite various flaws, which would not be considered major, the film scores (especially in the latter half). The story of Frank Lucas, his rise and his fall is quite engrossing. Apart from the two main protagonists, the way Lucas’ drug business works and how it affects the consumers, competitors and middle men is very interesting. Zaillian does a nice job of putting the material together and Scott does a competent job helming this film. Though the film never reaches the vicinity of greatness, it is one that is worth watching for those interested in the genre.