‘American Gangster’ delivers with all-star cast

Home 2008 archive ‘American Gangster’ delivers with all-star cast

By Nathan Deen

Published on November 7, 2007

When we look ahead to upcoming films in the fall season like “American Gangster” the words ‘Oscar bait’ come to mind. But how often does a highly anticipated film deliver as much as this one does. You would have to go back to last year with a film, similar to “American Gangster” in terms of genre, called “The Departed.”

Look at the names involved with that picture: Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg and I haven’t even gotten to the supporting cast. That movie lived up to its hype and deservedly won Best Picture.

Now look at just three of the names from “American Gangster”: Ridley Scott, Denzel Washington, and Russell Crowe. Between those three names there are a total of 11 Oscar nominations and three wins. Now those three together have crafted a masterwork that even outdoes Scorsese himself and should add to those Oscar totals this upcoming February.

“American Gangster” starts out strong and just gets better and better and better. Based on a true story, the film opens with a shocking scene in a Harlem alleyway involving Denzel lighting a guy on fire and then shooting him several times to death. This is how we are introduced to Frank Lucas, who rose to be the most notorious drug dealer in the New York and New Jersey area. Scott’s story of how Lucas became so successful and the way he tells it is brilliant.

On the other side of the law is honest detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). He’s a man so honest that he turned in a million untraceable dollar as evidence instead of keeping it for himself. Apparently the system is so corrupt that most cops would not have done that. This makes him the ideal candidate to head a new narcotics team to stop the outbreak of heroine that Frank Lucas has started.

Scott takes his time with these characters and lets them develop. Lucas and Roberts get an even and separate amount of time on screen until they collide in a final courtroom sequence at the end of the film. We get to know everything there is to know about these characters. If you’re wondering right now who would win a one-on-one on-screen battle between Washington and Crowe, “American Gangster” won’t provide any concrete results. Both actors are equally outstanding and fit into their respective roles perfectly.

We learn how Lucas was able to import pure heroin from South Asia by way of American military and was able to stay under the radar from law enforcement for years. We learn about how much he loves his family and his mother. We learn about how he meets his Puerto Rican wife Carla, (Laurie Roberts, in her first film and an impressive debut).

Both characters are symbolic. Lucas has everything he could ever want and he committed heinous crimes to get to the top. Roberts on the other side has always done the right thing and life rewards him with a divorce, a custody battle over his son, and a cheesy apartment.

Denzel should come away with an Oscar nomination here. He plays each scene just right. Whether he’s trying to play his character with ‘gangsta’ style or hinting at the sociopath that lies underneath that serious facial expression, Washington owns every scene he’s in.

However, I would be tempted to give the nod to Crowe because he is able to define his character’s honesty so well in a couple of touching scenes. One is where he declines a bribe and another is a powerful courtroom scene with his wife in which he carries over that honesty into his family problems to do what’s right for his son.

Scott tells a fascinating, dramatic, and compelling story while at the same time capturing the feel of a gangster movie and the period in which it’s set. Who better to help him do that than cinematographer Harris Savides, who beautifully depicted the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with this year’s earlier crime drama “Zodiac.” Same time period here, equally impressive work.

Although the film is a whopping 157 minutes, it hardly feels like it. Tension is created in multiple areas of the film especially in the third act with an impressive cops and robbers shootout. If you’ve seen “The Departed,” you know what I’m talking about. How much action did that movie have until the final act?. It emphasized character, and Scott’s film does the same and just as if not more brilliantly.

Scott has once again shown why he is one of the best directors working today, if not all-time. He never once puts more emphasis on ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ He even explores the gray areas and the effect Lucas has on the drug addicts that he supplies. Richard Nixon told us that drugs are America’s public enemy No. 1 and Scott shows us why. Hopefully, like Scorsese did last year, Scott will win the Best Director Oscar for the first time (He’s been nominated three times). “American Gangster” is an American masterpiece.

Grade: A+

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