American Gangster is based on a true story. In 1968, Harlem was essentially “ruled” by gangster Bumpy Johnson and with his death, his right-hand man, Frank Lucas was somewhat left to fend for himself, even though he had some small support from others. Frank figured that the only way to become his own man was to offer something that his competitors couldn’t, which was 100% pure heroin from Bangkok. And so in his own enterprising manner, Frank set out to do that, becoming even a greater source for an influx of heroin into the country than even the Mafia was. Richie Roberts was a New Jersey narcotics detective who was honest on his job to a fault, to a point that it even cost him his wife and son. Roberts was so honest, that after one particular incident, no one wanted to work with him, making him the perfect man to head up an east-coast federal narcotics division with men hand-picked by him to seek out the largest of drug transactions. Which eventually leads him to Frank Lucas…
And that’s a real nutshell compression of the story of American Gangster the latest film from director Ridley Scott and in my opinion anyway, his best film since Black Hawk Down. This almost seems like a different Ridley Scott at work here too. Scott is best known for a his visual stylings, and here he handles the material as matter-of-factly as possible, making a very fast-paced movie that owes much to the film-making style of the 70s, and in particular something like William Friedkin’s The French Connection.
American Gangster weighs in at nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes long, and it never, ever feels that long at all. This film moves like a bullet from the word “go” and there’s nary a moment of wasted film on the screen. This story is just absolutely engrossing and both of these men have such great depth, that you want to see what happens next and Scott handles it in fine fashion.
Scott certainly attracts name and great acting talent, and this movie is no exception. Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts (the first time they’ve been on-screen together since a very fun film from back in the day called Virtuosity) and they’re both terrific here. I was remarking to a friend last night that it seems like Denzel Washington hasn’t aged a day since his time on St. Elsewhere which was now nearly 20 years ago. They’re backed up with lots of other great supporting folks here including Chiwetel Eijifor, Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, Cuba Gooding Jr., Carla Gugino and Ted Levine amongst others. Special note has to go to Josh Brolin who’s really good here as a New York narcotics officer who’s as crooked as they come, he really shines and stands out in the part.
I sort of see this movie as Scorsese-lite, basically seeming that it’s a lot like something Martin Scorsese would make, but backing away a bit from Scorsese’s style, and that’s not meant as a knock to the film at all. I think Ridley Scott, laying off of his visual stylings here is a good thing and the story that he has to work with is so good that it just serves him best to get in and tell that story without any fancy visual bells and whistles. The result is an engrossing film that moves like a bullet from start to finish. I’ve been on a pretty good streak of films lately, and yet again, with American Gangster, I’ve yet another movie that will have to be considered in my Best of 2007 list. This is absolutely a terrific film… don’t miss it.