American Gangster

Directed by Ridley Scott, Written by Steven Zaillian
On general release from 16th November 2007

Reviewed by Colin Serjent

Coppola's Godfather this ain’t! American Gangster, based on the true-life story of Harlem drug baron Frank Lucas, is a glitzy and poorly acted ensemble. The worst offenders are the two main leads; Denzel Washington (playing Lucas) and Russell Crowe, in the role of good cop Richie Roberts.

This is the third film in recent times that Crowe has been miscast in a role. Sorry but he did not convince me at all in his characterisation of a New York drug squad leader, neither did he as a cowboy in 3:10 To Yuma or as a wine grower in A Good Life.

Washington was equally one-dimensional in American Gangster. He was almost a cardboard cut-out figure - offering little depth to the study of a man who destroyed the lives of thousands in the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s when his Magic Blue unadulterated heroin hit the streets.

After cutting out the middleman in his drugs trafficking, ie. bypassing the mafia, Lucas made a fortune from his enterprise and showed no guilt or pity about the despair he brought about.

The film is mainly set at the end of the Vietnam War and amidst the chaos it created Lucas was able to bring in masses of heroin from Thailand with the use of American military aircraft.

Roberts assembles a crack team of drug busters - after he was ostracised by the police force for turning in nearly a million dollars of drug money which had been earmarked for a number of cops - the New York police force at the time the film is set was awash with corruption, taking big backhanders from gangsters to allow them to continue their illegal operations.

Frustrated by the inability to pinpoint the main man behind the drug smuggling, Lucas - who always preached to his acolytes not to be too showy in their style of attire or manner - made the mistake of wearing a absurd looking hat and overcoat at a boxing match at Madison Square Garden involving Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier which caught the attention of Roberts, who was snapping photographs of people in the crowd. Why, he asked himself, has this guy I don't know, managed to get such a prominent seat next to Joe Louis in the crowd amongst all the celebrities ringside.

The downfall of Lucas was effectively set in motion from that point.

There are several superfluous parts of the film, most unnecessary of which is the battle of Roberts to keep his marriage to his wife Laurie (Carla Gugino) alive and the subsequent oh so tiresome courtroom done to death scenes - it has been used in many films in the past - in which they both squabble over the custody of their young son. This did not add anything to the structure of the story.

The final act of American Gangster is barely credible. Lucas, as a means to receiving a shorter jail term, grasses on other gangsters, with both him and Roberts flashing big grins between one another while doing so. It's a wonder they did not exchange high fives at the same time.

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