Reel Rewind – American Gangster

American Gangster (MA)

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin

Three and a half stars

Review by Julian Wright

When you get two academy award winning actors in the same film for the first time, the anticipation can be almost unbearable. When Hollywood heavyweights Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared few precious minutes together in Michael Mann’s Heat audiences were on the edge of their seats.

Powerhouse performers Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe made the mistake of appearing together for the first time in the dreadful sci-fi flick Virtuosity in 1995. Since then the two have accrued several awards and endless praise for their subsequent work. This time they get it right when they go head to head in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster as men from the opposite sides of the law.

American Gangster tracks the rise and fall of the most powerful African American criminal, a man who was able to surpass the Italian Mafia when it came to organised crime. When Frank Lucas’ (Denzel Washington) boss and mentor dies in 1968, he is left an impressive legacy. He was one of the leading black crime bosses in Harlem.

But Frank strives to achieve more than his predecessor. He believes the only way to do this is to take advantage of the war in Vietnam and use the US planes to transport pure cocaine from the jungles in Bangkok. By cutting out the middle man he is able to sell it as is and at a cheap price.

As the streets become flooded with pure cocaine, Frank’s empire grows and more people become affected by the drug. Cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) tries to track down where it is coming from and who is to blame. While sorting through low-life criminals to get to the kingpin, Richie must also deal with a heartbreaking tug of war with his wife over their son.

Given the talents in front of and behind the camera, one would expect a crackling cat and mouse crime thriller. Unfortunately, despite the top performances the film has little subtext and therefore fails to have much weight. What we see is fairly standard and routine. It is a long and slow build up to the inevitable but when the two stars share the screen, it proves to be worth the wait.

What is interesting is how Denzel Washington is so fascinating to watch and effortlessly commands the screen. His portrayal of this criminal is chilling. For the most part, he is nice and respectable but often relentless and unleashes horrific violence. Crowe’s character isn’t given enough light until too far into the film. Up until then it is difficult to become involved in his plight.

Ridley Scott often works with characters that don’t have lengthy back-stories or deep psychological profiles, but this time maybe he should have pushed for a bit more. More character depth and development may have improved an otherwise familiar story. He does, however, create some shocking and suspenseful moments.

 As appeared in Examiner Newspapers 2008

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