American Gangster

American Gangster

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Not only were the early Seventies awash with some of the most revolutionary filmmaking that America would ever see, but they also represented a time of broken dreams, as a protracted, unjust war, corrupt, self-serving authorities, an outlawed counterculture and a duplicitous President together engendered a new mood of cynicism.

No surprises, then, that our own decade with its similar problems should be so obsessed with revisiting that time and its cinema. In the last few years, the horror, drama and grindhouse sleaze of Hollywood's cocaine-fuelled Golden Age have all been painstakingly reimagined, and now its police procedural pics are also up for reinvestigation. For, like David Fincher's Zodiac (2007), Ridley Scott's American Gangster is a true-crime epic not only set largely in the Seventies, but made with all the robust techniques, street-level vim and moral ambiguity that characterised the cop flicks of the period.

Copy picture

When we first encounter Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), he pours petrol over a bound and bloody rival, sets it alight, and then finishes the screaming figure off with a round of bullets. When we first encounter Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), he follows a lead to a bag filled with one million dollars of drug money, and turns every last cent of it in to his station chief as evidence. The difference between Frank and Richie, one an unusually suave killer, the other an atypically honest cop, seems as plain as black and white.

Yet as Frank rises from crime boss' driver to become his own boss, bypassing the mafia to take over the import and distribution of unadulterated heroin from South East Asia, and as Richie begins to pursue the man responsible for the deadly new product on the street, we begin to see the men's similarities. Both follow a strict moral code that isolates them from their colleagues, both put together their own independent and trusted teams to get the job done, and both see their friendships and family lives fracture under the strain of their work and their refusal to compromise. An eventual Heat-like confrontation between these men seems inevitable - but will they duke it out as enemies or make a deal as partners? After all, as Richie says of the famous duel between Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali: "It ain't boxing, kid, it's politics."

Politics, indeed. For if the title of American Gangster does not make it clear enough already, lines spoken by Frank's old boss in the opening scenes ("This is the problem, the problem with America") hammer the point home: Scott's film, though based on actual events, is about far more than mere cops and robbers. Their actions may be criminal, but the characters in this film speak the language of business, and the cutthroat entrepreneurship, price-fixing collusion and daylight robbery that have become the very fabric of their dealings are made to reflect a more general ethos of Seventies (not to mention Noughties) America. Only Frank and Richie, in their different ways and on their different sides of the law, embody the more traditional values of the American Dream, catalogued by Frank as "honesty, integrity, hard work, family, never forgetting where we came from". It is, of course, what makes them both pariahs - and ultimately heroes.

"This is the French Connection," complains a gangster (Jon Polito) to Frank of the corrupt detectives who are controlling the drugs market, making it hard for the genuine criminals to earn their dishonest living. He is not wrong - but cinephiles will also notice elements of The Untouchables, Once Upon A Time In America, Scarface, Serpico, New Jack City, and even Do The Right Thing woven into the rich layers that make up American Gangster. It is as though Scott, like Frank, has gone back to source, bringing viewers the most refined product available. The film's only flaw is its indulgent length, full of colourful detail but still difficult to justify given that there are only two fully realised characters to carry the whole sprawling narrative - and only one of them develops in any interesting way. Still, two characters makes one more than Scott had in his earlier, even longer hit Gladiator...

Boasting outstandingly lived-in performances and period detail so casually real you barely notice it, American Gangster is a muscular piece of filmmaking, as engrossing as it is free from cliché. What is more, its message about the difficulty of conducting an effective crusade when your own side is every bit as corrupt as "public enemy number one" has never been more relevant today, whether one thinks of the continuing War on Drugs or indeed the War on Terror. This is certainly a much better vintage than Scott's previous A Good Year.

Reviewed on: 25 Sep 2007
Share this with others on...
American Gangster packshot
The true story of the rise of an American mobster.
Amazon link

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Steve Zaillian, based on an article by Mark Jacobson

Starring: Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, RZA, Carla Gugino, TI, Norman Reedus, Jon Polito

Year: 2007

Runtime: 156 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:


Search database:


If you like this, try:

The Untouchables