Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Digging for ideas within a genre

By Edward Copeland
Some films have so much going for them, are so close to hitting the mark, that it's frustrating as you watch the missed opportunities. This is certainly the case with Ridley Scott's American Gangster which, despite having a top-notch cast and interesting themes, just doesn't quite finish with a win.

Written by Steven Zaillian, American Gangster tells the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who went from a driver for the kingpin of the Harlem mob to an enterprising player who dominated the heroin trade in New York in the 1970s.

It also tells the parallel story of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an honest N.Y. detective attending night school to become a lawyer who ends up heading a federally sanctioned task force to make inroads in the war on drugs.

The plot sounds like numerous fictional and nonfictional accounts of crooks and the cops who chase them, but American Gangster has a more interesting take on the genre buried within its surface. Unfortunately, the plodding pace of the overlong film holds the movie back from being truly great.

The movie sets up its theme in the opening, when Lucas, still a driver for the Harlem kingpin Bumpy Johnson (played in an uncredited cameo by Clarence E. Williams III), hears Bumpy lament the disappearance of the middle man as chain stores started replacing mom-and-pop operations in the late 1960s. When Bumpy passes on, Frank decides to pursue that entrepreneurial spirit his boss decried, setting up direct dealings with opium merchants in Southeast Asia, an operation enabled by the Vietnam War.

The script's almost anthropological approach neatly sets up the parallels between Lucas and Roberts, as both are upsetting "the natural order of things" on both sides of the law.

Crowe gives one of his most subdued performances as Roberts, but Washington's work as the ultracool and slick Lucas dominates the proceedings.

Living in the flashy, Superfly-like world of gaudy gangsters, Lucas realizes that "the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room" and does his best to operate below the radar, without the flash that would attract attention. In an interesting way, Lucas is really the better family man, taking care of his aging mother (the great Ruby Dee) and assorted kin, while Roberts neglects his son and pursues several brief flings.

In another respect, Lucas really isn't the most villainous character in American Gangster. That goes to Josh Brolin as a particularly corrupt and vile detective. 2007 has really been a breakout year for Brolin, with his great work here and in No Country for Old Men.

The fantastic ensemble also includes solid turns by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Armand Assante, Idris Elba, John Hawkes, Ted Levine, Jon Polito and the best role Cuba Gooding Jr. has had in more than a decade.

Scott does well creating the atmospherics of the film's '70s milieu, but he takes so long getting the story going that by the time it gets to its payoffs, it feel rushed. It's a shame, because there is a great story within American Gangster that wants to raise questions such as whether it's really in anyone's business interests to stop the drug trade, but much of that gets lost in the film's flab.

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Couldn't agree more. The heart of the story takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r to kick in. Any talk of Oscar nominations is chiefly due to the past work of all involved, rather than anything accomplished here. Not a bad film by any stretch, but it will be remembered more as a missed opportunity.
I would have enjoyed seeing the movie of what happened after Crowe and Washington meet up, rather than what the filmmakers gave me. Ridley Scott is the wrong director for this material. This was a job for Sidney Lumet or Spike Lee. It's not a bad film, but it is listless at times and far from the epic it thinks it is. Plus, Josh Brolin and Ruby Dee deserved more screen time, as they both upstage the leads.

A missed opportunity to be sure. I liked it more than you, Ed, but I don't see why some people are calling this a masterpiece.
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