Going Vintage with American Gangster Posters | American Gangster (2007)
American Gangster – 2007

Director Ridley Scott
Screenplay Steven Zaillian based on The Return of Superfly by Marc Jacobson
Starring Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, RZA, Carla Gugino, Clarence Williams II, Ruby Dee, Joe Morton, Idris Elba, Lymari Nadal

About 12 years ago, after having bought the film, I tried to watch American Gangster. I didn’t make it past the murder in the open on the street. It felt like something done for shock value and felt like it couldn’t be real at all. Turns out, that is one of the tales of this film that might be true. The rest? Well, lets just say Scott and Zaillian have turned the thread of a story into quite a yarn. The real Frank Lucas was, according to most sources, vicious and illiterate. Denzel from everything I have ever witnessed, could never portray someone who was the latter of these. Richie Roberts was not going through a child dispute. Most of the DEA in New York were not brought down by Frank Lucas.

The fact that maybe, according to Lucas, only a small portion of the film is true to real life events, doesn’t erase the fact that we’re witnessing two of the best actors of their time near the top of their craft. the almost 3 hour unrated version of American Gangster rolls through the extreme competence of Scott and his two fantastic leads. What is more, the cast that looked pretty good in 2007 has blossomed with many award winners in the baker’s dozen years since.

As good as this cast is, other than Brolin, they don’t have all that much to do, but move through motions directed by the two protagonists who are antagonists to one another. The future Thanos builds his bad guy repertoire here as a dirty cop who becomes the ultimate villain by slapping a wife and killing a dog.

The story taking place in the early 1970’s New York, is about Frank Lucas, who is a driver for Bumpy Johnson (Williams II). After his boss and mentor passes on, Lucas is overlooked by other crime bosses (Elba, Gooding Jr.). After heading to Vietnam to deal directly with the makers, he cuts out the middle men and starts selling pure stuff for low prices under the name of Blue Magic.

Meanwhile, Richie Roberts is a squarely honest New Jersey detective who has troubles navigating through bad cops on the force (including his own partner). He’s going through a divorce and working his way through law school (this matters). He gets wind of the pure Blue Magic and starts down the path to discovering who is behind the new menace.

Meanwhile, in New York City, Detective Trupo (Brolin) leads a band of corrupt DEA officials who are thriving on milking the drug dealers for a few bucks here and there. Their job is one of opportunity. They’re the bully always stealing the lunch money of the middle men, and engaging the big guys when they think they have the upper hand.

The stories of the first two perform a narrative dance around one another, with the third being thrown in occasionally just to remind everyone that there is a bigger asshole in the area. That the dance never lingers on either story long prevents any lags overall, but it also relegates incredible actors like Hawkes, Etofor and Elba to role players with few opportunities to show personality or progression of character.

We didn’t see this film to get to know them, however. We also can’t be worried about the beautiful Ruby Dee and Lymari Nadal, playing Frank’s mother and wife, respectively. This show is exclusively a vehicle for Washington and Crowe, and Scott understands this fact.

For a four hour film, the story has time to breathe, but never gets caught up in exposition. There is time taken to build scenes in bits and drabs, then moments that flash with passion and violence. Scott is enough of an economist that he doesn’t need to set up long scenes to hit a money shot squarely over the fence.

As Lucas, Washington gives the character a gravity that only he can supply. He is serious, without being overly dramatic. He is thoughtful and deliberate. There is not questioning his intentions, even if those who knew the real deal complain that he makes Lucas appear much more noble than the gangster they remember. It’s not easy to give someone that much power, yet still leave the single thread that will undo everything. Washington’s so good, he can leave that fatal flaw (over reliance on family) out there and dare you to pull everything apart.

Crowe’s Roberts has less distance to traverse. He’s a stand up guy throughout. They throw in the part about the custody battle to give him more grist. Apparently promiscuity isn’t enough of a wrench to throw in as a flaw. Gugino gives a good speech for him to respond to in the middle of a courtroom midway through, and that gives the rest of the viewers enough to feel something about his character beyond appreciation for his honest handling of his job.

This film does not change the world. It doesn’t reveal any greater truths. It is the story of one man who saw an opportunity to move himself and his family ahead, at the expense of addicts, along with another man who sees the opportunity to keep hacking away at lawbreakers on his way to becoming a defense lawyer.

If that sounds like too much to cover in a movie, it’s not. The three hours fly by and justice is served.

(**** out of *****)

Original Ebert review (a perfect ****) with the following excerpt:

“When it was first announced, Ridley Scott’s film was inevitably called “The Black Godfather.” Not really. For one thing, it tells two parallel stories, not one, and it really has to, because without Roberts, there would be no story to tell, and Lucas might still be in business.”

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