AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) – No-holds-barred look at a smooth, ruthless drug dealer

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It’s astonishing how far dysfunctional families will go to convince themselves that they’re not living a lie.

In American Gangster, the dysfunctional family is the American heroin market. The head of the family is druglord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). And the outsider and truth-teller is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an estranged police detective.

Roberts’ and Lucas’ stories are told in mesmerizing parallel. Roberts is cherry-tree-era George Washington when it comes to being a cop. He does something major, seemingly a good deed, that brings him eternal enmity among his fellow cops.

Lucas does something major, too — dealing heroin in Harlem. Yet he is looked up to by his family, his “employees,” and even the Italian mobsters from whom he steals the drug trade. Seemingly, the only person in the world interested in bringing Lucas to justice is Roberts.

Lest these men sound cliche, it’s only because I won’t spoil the movie by divulging its rich character details: The way that Roberts bluffs magnificently to rescue a fellow cop from his certain murder. The way Lucas goes to elaborate lengths to obtain the pure heroin he deals. And best of all, the telling bit of flashy clothing that finally tips Lucas off to Roberts.

Such details are the result of another razor-sharp script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and direction from Ridley Scott (who only seems to be getting better in his fourth decade of movie-making).

Among the supporting players, the nicest surprise is Ruby Dee as Lucas’ elderly mother. At first, she seems like a typical, saintly old lady. Then there’s a scene in which she encapsulates an entire movie’s worth of characterization in about three minutes. Beautiful.

Denzel Washington delivers another personal best. Watch Lucas’ sleek suavity boil over into frightful anger. Or watch his face subtly droop when he realizes his drug kingdom is starting to decay.

I had feared that Russell Crowe, as in L.A. Confidential, would play his cop as a one-note good guy. But Roberts’ noble detective work is just one strand of his DNA. As the rest of his life shows us, he’s not terribly virtuous; he’s just driven to do this deed.

Most amazing aspect is how the movie makes us identify with these opposing extremes of the same coin. If you can stomach the violence — and from the start, the movie pulls no punches — American Gangster will richly reward you.

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