Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Keepin' It Gangster... American Gangster

Originally posted on November 5, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Anybody who reads my blogs or know me personally, know that I have been extremely excited about seeing this movie. Denzel and Russell Crowe together again? I loved Virtuosity! So, I went with some of my smartest friends on opening night to catch it and we were not disappointed.

This movie is not perfect, only for the simple fact that nothing is perfect. But, it comes damn close. Although Ridley Scott is mostly known for making films like Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator and Legend, he is also the man who made Thelma & Louise and Black Rain. American Gangster is a very straight forward movie and Ridley does not put forth so much effort into the visuals of the film, (although the movie looks great) but concentrates on telling the story of the two main characters and allowing the two main actors to take over the movie. Not to say that anybody could have directed, but only someone like Scott could realize the massive talents of his cast and allow them to become the main thrust of the picture.

The title of the movie tells you right off that it's a gangster movie, (although the teenagers sitting behind me thought the movie was about Denzel being a hot cop and Russell Crowe being hot too. Hot Cops! Taking over the town!) but it is also a cop movie. Set in New York in the Seventies against the backdrop of Vietnam and the rise of heroin, the movie takes place in the same era as the great cop pictures such as French Connection and Serpico. Indeed, one would think it to be a film helmed by one of that class of directors, a Scorsese, a Lumet or a Freidkin, but this movie aspires to be more than that. And although it is not as good as the Godfather or Goodfellas, it will be a classic and inspire filmmakers and drug dealers/rappers for generations. For Denzel's Frank Lucas is a more intimidating figure than Tony Montana, Frank White or even his own Alonzo Harris. Calculating, patient and still family-oriented, Frank rises from being Bumpy Johnson's (Clarence Williams III) enforcer, to the king of New York. Surrounding himself with his family, he manages to appease the Italian Mafia, other black gangsters and his East Asian suppliers, while keeping himself and his business quiet and under the radar. And once again, his woman manages to become his downfall. It all begins with her. Lesson learned lads, lesson learned. Denzel Washington is Denzel Washington and the man gets nothing but better in every movie. It almost seems like he's having a lot of fun in this movie, playing a character unlike any other, (in Training Day, he was borderline sado-masochistic, fueling his own death.) and still managing to bring himself through the character into the performance. Conversely, Russell Crowe is simply brilliant as Richie Roberts, the Jewish cop/law student who tries to keep his clean head above water in a sea of cops on the take. While he excels at his work, his personal falls apart amid his ex-wife, his son (who you see ONCE.) and his friends, new and old, straight and criminal. And, Crowe plays all of this superbly, moving from tough talking, crazy cop, to nervous, insecure head of either the new anti-drug task force or the prosecution against Frank Lucas. Crowe is rarely seen so vulnerable, (except in A Beautiful Mind where he was paranoid schizophrenic, bi-sexual and anti-Semitic.) and he should surely garner another Oscar nod. But, his cop is not a perfect cop, stumbling through his investigation, stepping on toes and pissing people off, rather than following solid leads, but it serves to make him more human and a more likable character in a film where people are likely to root for the gangster. Both Denz and Crowe succeed in making you wonder who to root for, which in turn, makes you question yourself and your values.

And in this regard, the movie achieves far more than any other cops and robbers flick ever has. For while certain cop movies try to hit you over the head with their message and self-righteousness, while too many gangster movies fall into senseless violence and anarchy (Scarface, I'm looking at you) without making you feel for the characters, American Gangster walks the fine line between being an engaging and exciting film based on a true story while at the same time, examining the larger issues behind drugs, war, business, government and justice. And honestly, I looked past the Vietnam War mirroring our current situation in Iraq and found that, to me, the movie is a very critical commentary on capitalism, all alliteration aside.

In the film, everything is about money. Frank wants to make it and Richie fights to do the right thing amidst the temptation of it. Frank is a businessman first and maximizes his profits on a superior product. Albeit, his product is a dangerous narcotic and the opinion of that is left to the individual viewer, but never forget that behind every great fortune is a great crime. Frank Lucas wanted the American dream, hence the proper placement of the word in the title. He tried to be the black Joe Kennedy and in surrounding himself with family, he tried to ensure they would be well off for generations, "white man rich, wealthy" as he explains to them. And even though big words like monopoly and trade infringement are thrown around, the fact remains that Frank makes his money by being shrewder than the competition and working on a smaller scale the same business model than the world was beginning to use (larger inventory, streamlining production and cutting out the middleman) and that Bumpy talks about in the beginning of the film. And while it might seem that the money issues only affect Frank, Richie has his own. And not just turning in a million dollars of dirty money, but in one scene he comments on how many people would be out of work if there were no more drugs on the streets. For me, it makes perfect sense because of my belief that the government is largely responsible for the influx of illegal narcotics into this country and that they are largely fighting to regulate the traffic, rather than eliminate it. Now, go back to the Vietnam connection and say that Frank is basically a war profiteer and examine what our government is doing now to maximize the profits of their fellow stockholders in this current Iraq war. Ask yourself where's the gas rationing? Rosie the Riveter? War bonds? Can we really have our cake and eat it too? Can we afford this war much longer?

OK, back to the movie and not the socio-political implications of it. Its great, with some really kick ass action sequences. And the supporting cast is fantastic. By far, Josh Brolin is amazing, stealing the show. I loved him in Grindhouse and cannot wait for No Country for Old Men. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor who is outstanding in everything he's in from Children of Men to Inside Man and other films without a male derivative in the title and he gets great play in this film and Frank's brother. And I was completely surprised to discover Cuba Gooding Jr. alive and acting and able to still do both pretty damn well as Nicky Barnes, a flashy gangster version of Rod Tidwell. Also, Joe Morton, the RZA, Kevin Corrigan and Ruby Dee are all great in their smaller roles.

American Gangster was well worth the wait and I loved every minute of it. A sure fire Oscar contender and an absolute DVD purchase when it comes out, I highly recommend everyone to go see it. After I spent about thirty minutes gushing over it, I was asked it if was better than The Departed, to which I replied, "Nothing is better than The Departed." But, it comes pretty close.

American Gangster, directed by Ridley Scott, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe is available on DVD from Universal.

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