In 1970s America, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) sets out to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a heroin kingpin from Manhattan, who is smuggling the drugs into the country in the coffins of soldiers from the Vietnam War. Nobody used to notice Frank Lucas, the quiet apprentice to Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), one of the inner city's leading postwar black crime bosses. But when his boss suddenly dies, Lucas exploits the opening in the power structure to build his own empire and create his own version of the American success story, flying to Thailand and buying his heroin direct, cutting out the middleman, selling purer drugs at lower prices.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
American Gangster is a crime epic that is made the more riveting for being based on facts. What writer would be audacious enough to invent a story in which a black guy ran a bigger, better, leaner and hungrier drug operation than the Italian Mafia in New York? This is the sort of material at which Ridley Scott excels. It's also his kinda cast: Russell Crowe is a given these days for any Ridley film which has a male lead and Denzel Washington has the chops to play a suave, well groomed bad-ass.
Crowe crimps his usual style to underplay Richie to great effect. Washington likewise plays things cool, with a few high voltage outbursts, but I'm less taken with his characterisation than I would like to be. It's not enough to shoot people in the head to create a character we can believe in, and there are ample opportunities to reveal the hidden, secret and amoral side of Mr Nice Guy.
Superb casting choices for the support roles give us a colourful range of people on both sides of the law. Officiallly, that is. By the time Richie Roberts had finished with the case, about three quarters of New York's drug enforcement cops had been convicted of corruption. Josh Brolin is terrific as the Special Detective who gets up everyone's nose, as is Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of Frank Lucas' brothers.
What I like about this film is the focused story telling; Ridley Scott is a no nonsense kind of guy, and his strength is the big story with big characters that stare down fate, defy their peers and succeed in what they set out to do. But to be interesting, they must have flaws, and he shows them all here. That's why Richie is shown as a hopeless father, and Lucas as a man whose morals went on vacation.
Technically and visually excellent, the film defies its lengthy running time. American Gangster is not quite in the Godfather class, but it's a riveting film with plenty of gas in the tank.
Review by Louise Keller:
The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity and family, says Denzel Washington's drug kingpin Frank Lucas. Ironically Frank excels at all of these qualities, whereas Russell Crowe's honest cop Richie Roberts, who believes in doing the right thing, has made a mess of his family life. Like Martin Scorsese's The Departed, the soul of Ridley Scott's American Gangster lies in the moral fortitude of two men on opposing sides. Washington towers above everything in this impressive, tough and long crime drama, convincingly putting his stamp on the elegant man whose callousness alternates with chivalry.
You're one of two things in this world: you're either somebody or you're no nobody, Frank states. It is clear from the very beginning, that Frank Lucas is somebody - owned by no-one. Richie is also clearly his own man, using information as currency, although his honesty in an overtly corrupt police force has made him many enemies. We get to understand the worlds of both men. When Frank sees Miss Puerto Rico (Lymari Nadal's Eva) across a crowded room at the club he owns, his intentions are clear. His drug business may be against the law, but his ethics in providing the purest of pure heroin is beyond reproach. While Frank leads an orderly life, Richie does not, struggling to manage his private life and the day-to-day management issues with his mostly corrupt colleagues.
The plot is often confusing as is the overload of characters, but the film has us captive. Josh Brolin is arresting as the corrupt Detective Trupo and Chiwetel Ejiofor is memorable as one of Frank's five brothers who can't resist dressing loudly. I especially liked Ruby Dee as Frank's mama, whose confrontation with her son is one of the film's unforgettable moments. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, from where Frank cleverly manipulates his transport for the pure heroin used for trade, the film is unflinching and uncompromising with Scott effectively juxtaposing the contrasting worlds of the two central characters.
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AMERICAN GANGSTER (MA)
CAST: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Hawkes, RZA, Yul Vazquez, Malcolm Goodwin, Ruby Dee, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, John Ortiz, Cuba Gooding jnr, Amand Assante, Carla Gugino, Skyler Fortgang,
PRODUCER: Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
SCRIPT: Steven Zaillian (article Return of Superfly by Mark Jacobson)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Harris Savides
EDITOR: Pietro Scalia
MUSIC: Marc Streitenfeld
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Arthur Max
RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 10, 2008