'American Gangster' **** Movie Review 121007

The Work = ****
‘American Gangster’ is a long film but surprisingly narrow in its focus. It tells a tale that has many familiar passages but tells it well enough to be enjoyable. The center of the feature is occupied by two stars: Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Washington plays gangster Frank Lucas, Crowe plays the detective hunting him, Richie Roberts. Here with Washington and Crowe, director Riddley Scott has two actors that are watchable doing almost anything. They are so likeable that they help carry the film, even when it possibly runs on a bit too long.

Their likeability is also a bit of a double edged sword when it comes to the gangster Lucas. Washington as Lucas is so darn likable that the violent side to the man takes something of a back seat. This can be somewhat problematic as Lucas would seem to have been a ruthless, cold blooded, killer. By making him so sympathetic, ‘American Gangster’ comes close to making the man look like a misguided saint, instead of the opportunistic criminal he was.

There is also the matter of the subject of ‘American Gangster’. Set mostly in the 70s the film treads on familiar material. This could have been a weak imitation of films past and it does have many scenes that might conjure up memories of ‘Serpico’, ‘The French Connection’, ‘Black Caesar’, ‘Superfly’, ‘The Mack’, and probably several others I’m forgetting. Despite the familiar territory, ‘American Gangster’ still works and works well for the most part. What Scott manages to do is make a feature that, while slim on action, does have many solid performances that carry the film.

The supporting cast is uniformly strong lead by relative newcomer Lymari Nadal as Luca’s gorgeous wife Eva. Nadal is stunning and delivers a solid performance that is especially noteworthy since she often acts opposite strong players like Washington. A long list of players come and go throughout the film. The always good Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ted Levine, John Hawkes, John Ortiz, Common, Idris Elba and the still great Ruby Dee are just some of the names and believe it or not I could have gone on. The strength of the supporting players that come and go add to the enjoyment of ‘American Gangster’ and in the case of Josh Brolin even make for someone you love to hate. Brolin does surprisingly little onscreen as the corrupt Detective Trupo and yet manages to make quite a villain out of his short screen time.

I mentioned that the film is slim on action but the few sequences that do occur in the film are handled with skill by veteran director Scott. A shootout at a drug lab towards the end is the highlight and Scott is able to ratchet up the intensity with lightening speed. The only quibble I had (and it is one probably no one else had) is there is a somewhat annoying overuse of a shotgun being pumped. I’m guessing the sound effect is used because it sounds intense but it seemed like Roberts pumped the thing every time he rounded a corner (and made the sound once without actually pumping it.)

There is also the problem of Robert’s separation from his wife and child. Some of the scenes are fine but a courtroom seen where Robert’s tells his wife she is right felt false (even if it really happened.) Some of the moments with his wife also seemed unnecessary. Part of it may have been the distance his wife has from the overall story being told in the film. Her scenes may have been what were padding out the runtime.

‘American Gangster’ does tread on familiar territory in passages but it still works. Maybe a tad long, the film is an enjoyable crime drama. If you like the players and are interested in the subject matter, chances are you will enjoy the film. Scott and co’ handle the material with skill and the wealth of strong supporting players will probably make for repeat viewings. I can’t help but say I would have liked Washington’s Lucas to be a bit less likeable but all told this is still highly recommended.


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