An epic crime tale with excellent performances, strong direction and a consistently compelling storyline.
As a film critic, one always winces a tad when they realize the movie they are about to view has a two hour and 37 minute running time. I see a lot of movies, fewer and fewer of which are worth my time. So when you see a runtime like that, you know the odds are stacked against you.
Thankfully, American Gangster came armed with a rather strong pedigree. It’s directed by Ridley Scott, a man responsible for such gems as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Alien and Blade Runner. Then again, he directed A Good Year and Hannibal. But Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are careful with the work they choose and rarely misfire. Still, epics of this magnitude are difficult and more times than not, they wind up falling far short of unreasonable expectations. Tough call.
American Gangster lives up, if not exceeds, the hype on all fronts. It is not a masterpiece of American cinema, but it does deliver a very solid entry into the true crime genre. It’s consistently engaging from start to finish and you never feel the two hour and 37 minutes run time, which is about the highest compliment I can imagine giving.
Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas, the notorious 70’s drug czar of Harlem, whose meteoric rise to power was nearly unprecedented. He has the people of Harlem behind him, both in his immediate family and the common townsfolk, trusting his every move. He stood behind his primary product, nicknamed “Blue Magic,” comparing himself to the chairman of General Mills in one scene. He’s kept himself beyond the reaches of the law for years, a bribe here and there thrown in for good measure. Russell Crowe is Richie Roberts, the Boston-bred Serpico-esque good cop. He’s so good, in fact, that in an age of almost constant corruption, he once turned in an untraceable suitcase full of money. Even Lucas questions this. The cat and mouse chase between Lucas and Roberts is built very slowly and deliberately. You get to know these men and identify with their ambitions even as you quickly realize one man’s world must soon crumble.
Ridley Scott’s directorial hand hasn’t been this steady in more than a decade. Yes, American Gangster is superior filmmaking to Black Hawk Down and Gladiator. Here Scott shows a command of the medium like few others. While it may be true that he’s got two of the best actors of this generation to help him along here, Scott is careful never to rest on those laurels alone. He resists the temptation to meander in superfluous plot elements, as he was guilty of in Kingdom of Heaven. It’s true that Richie’s child custody battle drifts a little towards daytime television, but those scenes are still engaging and teach you more about his character. Conversely, with Washington, Scott allows the actor to be as big and bold as is necessary. He lets Denzel use that trademark likability as a different kind of asset – a weapon, if you will. American Gangster is as taut and lean as any two and a half hour plus movie deserves to be. It rarely drags and keeps audiences entertained, constantly guessing what’s coming next.
Both Washington and Crowe are deserving of accolades here and both deliver performances in line with the year’s best. For Crowe, his own work in 3:10 to Yuma may be the one thing that overshadows his performance in Gangster. Washington continues to branch out, portraying another damaged character – this one devoid of any remorse and amazingly steadfast in his goal to take drug dealing to an almost legitimate, corporate level.
Time will tell where Gangster places stacked against the great criminal epics. I wouldn’t place it quite on the level of last year’s Best Picture, The Departed, but considering Scorsese has spent years exploring the genre and this is Scott’s first effort, it’s not a bad start. American Gangster is that rare melding of an entertaining film pop audiences will love that could also wind up a critical darling come awards season. It’s already towards the top of my list for 2007 and, despite that pesky running time, I look forward to seeing it again.