American Gangster (2007): Ridley Scott Directs Denzel Washington

In a season defined by mediocre political movies (“In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition”) and over-the-top historical epics (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), Ridley Scotts “American Gangster” emerges as one of the most exciting (but not entirely satisfying) features of the year.
The film combines good elements of a uniquely American genre, the crime-gangster, with a fact-based drama about one of the most complex and contradictory figures of the 1970s, drug lord Frank Lucas, splendidly played by Denzel Washington in a grand performance that should be remembered at Oscar time.

As the obsessive cop, determined to bring Frank down, the movie also offers an interesting role for Russell Crowe, who turns a decent (but not great) performance, though acquits himself honorably enough to erase the bad taste left after last years Good Year, his disappointing romantic comedy, also helmed by Scott.

I dont think we are likely to see this year a larger or better cast in an American feature, from the two stars all the way down to the secondary and minor characters. The superlative ensemble includes both vets and newcomers: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, RZA, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, and Ted Levine.

Positing Washingtons crime mastermind and folk hero Frank against Crowes honest cop Richie Roberts in this blistering tale of a true American entrepreneur enriches the film in a dramatic way, since the characters are not only opposites in many ways, but also stand for different ideals of that elusive term, the American Dream, which continues to exert its spell on people of various walks of life.

The best compliment I can pay American Gangster is to suggest that it links itself to the best works of American cinema of the past three decades. I have no doubts that “American Gangster” will be compared to Scorsese’s Oscar-winning crimer “The Departed,” GoodFellas and Casino, and to David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” another sprawling crime saga that encompasses several decades. Since Nicholas Pileggi (Scorsese’s frequent collaborator) is exec-producer, it’s fair to speculate that he also has contributed to the final script, which took years of writing and polishing.

Set for the most part in the 1970s, American Gangster also brings to mind Paul Thomas Andersons Boogie Nights, his loving tribute to the porn industry, another business and subculture that was just as alluring and illegitimate as drug trafficking. But most of all, the new film is grounded in the tradition of the great policiers that Sidney Lumet had made in the 1970s, from Serpico to Dog Day Afternoon to Prince of the City. Crowes incorruptible, self-righteous, over-determined cop bears clear echoes of Al Pacinos Christ-like cop in Serpico.

With all my enthusiasm, “American Gangster” is not a perfect film. For one thing, its far too long (two hours and 37 minutes). For another, the first hour relies too heavily on crosscutting between Franks story, which is splashier and more exciting, and Richies, which is more routine up until the last act, dragged down by divorce proceedings and custody battles with his wife.

Some of the films problems stem from its narrative structure and acting caliber. A co-starring vehicle, American Gangster gives the impression of a film that went out of its way to elevate Russell Crowes stature by adding scenes so that he will have a bigger part–and more substantial screen time.

Other flaws derive from the films ambitious scope, aiming to shed light not only on an outrageous drug trafficking from the Southeast Asia (even more incredible than the one depicted in The French Connection), but also on how the American Dream of upward mobility and monetary success is interpreted by minorities members in society who, undeterred by race, social class, and lack of formal education, are eager to claim their share in the big pie called conspicuous consumption and the American Way of Life.

Helmer-producer Scott has said that he was attracted to the material due to the paradoxes of its two central adversarial characters. A charismatic, self-made entrepreneur, Frank smuggles heroin from Vietnam in the caskets of American soldiers. In contrast, Richie is an incorruptible cop with weakness for women (including his lawyer) and not a particularly mature or responsible father either. Frank possesses many admirable attributes–a touch of genius in his business prowess, devotion to his mother, wife, and siblings–yet he chose to peddle heroin and risk his life. In contrast, Richie, like Serpico, is the paragon of morality at work, but his personal and family lives leave a lot to be desired.

Unfolding during the height of the Vietnam War (1968-1975), American Gangster relates the “success story” of Frank Lucas, a cult hero from Harlems streets. A product of a poor sharecropping family from a small North Carolina town, he arrives in N.Y. in 1946 as a penniless yet different sonofabitch. In the first scenes, we see Frank working as the driver of Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), one of the city’s leading black crime bosses.

When his boss suddenly dies, in 1968, Lucas exploits the opening in the power structure to build he his own empire by cutting out the middlemen and the mob, selling purer drug, which he calls Blue Magic, at below-market prices. Through ingenuity, strict business ethics, and professional pride of his mtier, Frank rules the inner-city drug trade with cleaner product, delivered quickly at a better value. Outplaying the leading crime syndicates, Frank becomes not only one of the city’s top criminals, but also a member of the city’s “legit” superstars.

Lucas is juxtaposed with Richie, an outcast cop close enough to the streets to feel a shift of control in the drug underworld. Holding that someone is climbing the rungs above the mafia families, he begins to suspect that a black power player has come from nowhere to dominate the scene.

Both Lucas and Richie share a rigorous ethical code that sets them apart form their colleagues, making them misfits, lone figures on opposite sides of the law. Gradually, the two mens destinies become intertwined, and they approach an inevitable confrontationthe equivalent of a Western shootout–in which only one can win.

A running motif-and joke-in the film is the reaction to Richies refusal to pocket one million dollars he had found in drug money. How many cops would resist such a temptation And indeed, it becomes a source of tension between Richie and his partner (wonderfully played by Ortiz), who meets a tragic fate, and continues to be mentioned throughout the story as a reminder of Richie as one of a kind moralistic cop. (This is reinforced in the end, when stats reveal the huge proportion of cops involved in this case, all of whom indicted).

Deep down, Frank is a loyal family man. He falls for Miss Puerto Rico (Lymari Nadal), courts her in a gentlemanly manner and marries her. Loyal to his entire family, he buys an estate for his mother (Ruby Dee) and employs his siblings in various but crucial capacities.

Franks rise to riches and fame is not without conflicts and enemies. At least four or five major figures roots for him to fail and fall. Prime amongst them are a brutal rival (Cuba Gooding Jr.,) a badass cop who’s utterly corrupt (Josh Brolin), an Italian-American mob boss (Armand Assante) with a touch of racism, refusing to believe that a black man has risen so quickly to the top; he tells Frank, “It’s success that took a shot at you.”

As noted, Frank and Richie dont meet in the films first two hours, but suspense is built into an anticipated meeting in a manner that recalls the historic encounter between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, as characters and actors, in Michael Manns 1995 crime epic Heat.

The two men are present under the same roof early on, at an Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden, when Richie spots Frank, wearing an ostentatious chinchilla coat and hat that mark him as an easy target. Later on, perceiving these gifts from his beloved wife careless, he burns them in the fireplace in front of her.

The tales climax, in which Frank and Richie join forces, turning them from mortal enemies to reluctant allies in fighting crime, allows Washington and Crowe to finally share the same screen together and to show quite a viable chemistry. (By the way, this is the second time that the stars appear together; the first was in Virtuosity).

Most of the film’s dialogue is sharply penned by Steven Zaillian, who won the Screenplay Oscar for Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” in 1993, and here does an excellent work of adapting Mark Jacobson’s interview-story with the real-life Lucas, The Return of Superfly, published in New York Magazine in 2000.

This his the third teaming of Ridley Scott and Crowe, whos quickly becoming the helmers fave actor, after teaming on the 2000 Oscar-winner “Gladiator” and A Good Year. With the exception of an inconsistent New Jersey-Jewish accent, Crowe acquits himself honorably, rendering a robust turn.

But the film belongs to Denzel Washington, as a character and actor. Since Frank is a complex man, full of contradictions, the role enables Washington to draw on his rich and diverse skills. And, indeed, he brings to the fore all of his dramatic experience, combining ingredients of his best screen parts, the heroic roles, such as “Glory,” for which he won a Supporting Oscar, and the non-heroic ones, such as Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day,” for which he won his second Oscar and first Best Actor Oscar. (Initially, Fuqua was attached to helm “American Gangster”).

Scott collaborates for the first time with the brilliant cinematographer Harris Savides, who this year alone has shot “Zodiac” and “Margot at the Wedding,” three vastly different looking projects. Stylistically, helmer and lenser pay attention to detail and through use of handheld camera increase the levels of immediacy and authenticity. Occasionally, they borrow some visual devices from Scorsese’s crimers, as well as Coppolas The Godfather scenes that crosscut brutal public massacres with civil and religious ceremonies, such as weddings and church services.

Critiquing the America obsession to achieve at all costs success, consumerism, and fame, American Gangster serves as a metaphor for the greediness of (mostly) white-collar capitalism. When Washingtons Frank says, “People like the fuck out of me,” you believe him, which is both scary and exciting. This statement also captures the dual, rather ambiguous attitudes we as ordinary viewers have toward crime figures in gangster pictures, from Scarface in 1932 all the way to Scarface in 1983. Initially, we are fascinated with gangsters, rooting for them to succeed. But only up to a point, after which, we switch allegiance and sympathies, wanting to see them brought down by law and order.

This notion makes the films last image all more poignant. We see Frank getting out of prison, standing out alone with no one to greet him, a small figure against a huge metal gate, staring at an empty street in silence–which is then broken by hip-hop music. It’s an impressive, pointed coda to a largely mesmerizing picture.

Cast

Frank Lucas – Denzel Washington
Richie Roberts – Russell Crowe
Huey Lucas – Chiwetel Ejiofor
Nicky Barnes – Cuba Gooding Jr.
Det. Trupo – Josh Brolin
Lou Toback – Ted Levine
Dominic Cattano – Armand Assante
Ellsworth “Bumpy”
Johnson – Clarence Williams III
Javier J. Rivera – John Ortiz
Freddie Spearman – John Hawkes
Moses Jones – RZA
Eva – Lymari Nadal
Alfonse Abruzzo – Yul Vazquez
Mama Lucas – Ruby Dee
Tango – Idris Elba
Laurie Roberts – Carla Gugino
Charlie Williams – Joe Morton
Turner Lucas – Common
Rossi – Jon Polito
Campizi – Kevin Corrigan
Nate – Rodger Guenveur Smith
Jimmy Zee – Malcolm Goodwin
Chinese General – Ric Young
U.S. Attorney – Roger Bart
Stevie Lucas – Tip Harris
Richie’s Attorney – Kadee Strickland
Doc – Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Detective in Morgue – Norman Reedus

Credits

Universal release of an Imagine presentation of a Scott Free production.
Produced by Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott.
Executive producers, Nicholas Pileggi, Steven Zaillian, Branko Lustig, Jim Whitaker, Michael Costigan.
Co-producers, Jonathan Filley, Sarah Bowen. Directed by Ridley Scott.
Screenplay, Steven Zaillian, based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson.
Camera, Harris Savides.
Editor, Pietro Scalia.
Music, Marc Streitenfeld.
Music supervisor, Kathy Nelson.
Production designer, Arthur Max.
Art director, Nicholas Lundy.
Set decorators, Beth A. Rubino, Leslie Rollins.
Costume designer, Janty Yates.
Sound, William Sarokin.
Supervising sound editor, Per Hallberg.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 157 Minutes.