Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

American Gangster

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 June

 

John F Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act, 1963

On this day in 1963, the US president, John F Kennedy addressed the nation. In his speech he called for legislation with would give all Americans “the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments”. He also called for equality before the law when it came to voting. His proposals would outlaw discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin and effectively sounded the death knell for racial segregation – in buses, diners, schools, wherever. The US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, had ventured into the same territory but it took the Civil Rights Act to finally make the change which made it illegal to treat African Americans (which is what both the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act were really all about) as second class citizens. The bill was written up and sent to Congress on 19 June, where it was reinforced. It then got bogged down on a procedural technicality in October in the House of Representatives, where the intention of some delegates was to keep it on ice indefinitely. The assassination of the president on 22 November 1963 made this blocking strategy untenable after the astute new president, Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, said “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Johnson had his way, though there were still compromises before the bill was finally, tortuously signed into law on 2 July 1964.

 

 

 

American Gangster (2007, dir.: Ridley Scott)

What do Civil Rights mean for a black man? In director Ridley Scott’s slightly cheeky hands they mean the liberty to do just what everyone else has been doing, and that includes becoming a drugs kingpin. And the more you think of it, there has been a dearth of black drug lords on the screens – two-bit hustlers on street corners, plenty. That’s not the only thing going on in this fascinating drama starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin dealer importing drugs into the country on planes coming back from Vietnam, a smart guy on the rise; Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the honest (and therefore reviled by his fellows) cop on his case, the two men locked together in a dance towards the volcano’s edge. If that sounds entirely like your standard-issue cops’n’mobsters set-up, that’s exactly what American Gangster is, an exercise in stylistic pastiche. But it is a hell of an exercise. Running its twin-track stories in parallel – the gentleman gangster who’s good to his mother; the troubled cop who’s good to nobody, not even his “it’s me or the job” woman (Carla Gugino) – Ridley carefully builds the story, holding off a meeting of the two key players until near the end. This is one of those big finale showdowns, in which Washington and Crowe have one of those tense, long, actorly scenes that writers like, stars love and audiences tolerate. On the way to it, Scott gives Scorsese a soft pedal, though Frank Lucas’s mob-boss mom is a lift straight out of Goodfellas (is it any surprise to discover that Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi is one of the executive producers?). Scott goes a bit harder on The French Connection  – that soft hazy, 60s/70s visual style is accurately captured, there’s a soundtrack straight from the Lalo Schifrin/Curtis Mayfield school of funky jazzy cool. You say derivative, I say homage. Whichever it is, Scott does it right, his actors and technicians do him proud and an intriguing story is told – a true one too – of a nobody who became a somebody by running a drugs empire the way you might run a department store (keep the staff and the customers happy). In the America of the Civil Rights era, the idea is, for the black man who wants a piece of the American Dream, this is one of the few ways to make that happen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Steve Zaillian’s smart, incident-rich screenplay
  • The period look of Harris Savides’s cinematography
  • Marc Streitenfeld’s score
  • The muscular Washington/Crowe pairing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

American Gangster – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “American Gangster”

  1. American Gangster has been really hated upon in many of the former posts I have read. Yet it seems like they are all saying the same thing, that Gangster didn't have enough action and was really drawn out. Anyone who has every seen a Ridley Scott film will know that his films are long! Blade Runner, A Good Year, Matchstick Men, Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, G.I. Jane, Thelma and Louis, and Alien all ran for at least two hours or more, so big surprise there guys. In addition Scott didn't set out to film another scarface, he set out to tell a story not just about Frank Lucas but rather a tale of corruption and how pervasive it is. One user commented that this film had many side story lines that "bloated" the story. This is completely untrue as every "side story" is actually the overarching story about the fight against corruption in every facet of life, even Frank Lucas attempts several times to eradicate the corruption in his organization.

    Over all this is a great film which really gets into every nook and cranny of an issue. Don't see this film if your just looking for cheap thrills, this is a thinking film about the pervasive dishonesty of our culture.

    I gave this film 8 stars because i could find nothing solid that detracted from it, but rather a slew of minor details which gradually brought its score down. But I will put this film in my top films for the year, if only because I have been immensely unsatisfied with the bulk of releases this year.

  2. Ridley Scott's new flick American Gangster was a good one. Though Im not gonna be saying it's the best film of the year or anything like that. It was directed well, barely any dull scenes, great acting by an enormous cast and was really well-written. Unfortunately the story never seemed "new" to me. I was reminded of other drug-related/crime movies, like BLOW, CITY OF GOD, and evening TRAINING DAY….."My Man". Though it's in the leagues as being entertaining as the above mentioned movies, it really just never felt like I was watching a "new" story. But speaking of story, I never knew anything about Frank Lucas, and his story is fantastic. A black man who was more influential than his Mafian brethren? Tell me you're kidding. Nope, he was a force in Harlem back in the late 60s and early 70s and barely anyone knows about it. But for me this area of the film was the only stand out part. Sure there are other good scenes, done well, but nothing worth mentioning. Well, scratch that, naked women workin in a drug lab was an eye-opening scene.

    Denzel Washington won the Oscar when he portrayed the crooked cop in Training Day who said "My Man" all the time. Well, in the American Gangster you got him saying this line again, and by God does he have it down. There are scenes when you know he's gonna say it, and he still pulls it off incredibly well. Denzel is one actor you really never have to worry about it in the acting department. You've got Russell "Mr. Oscar" Crowe playing the other lead, and like always, he always has the character down. He was great in this flick, the accent, the mannerisms, all of it. Though, his character's story was interesting in that he was in charge of the case to figure out who the big boy druglords were, his side story with his wife was for me the "dull" parts of the film. They were well-acted and all that, but mostly, it was just character development that isn't needed. Russell Crowe's good enough an actor to portray a struggling cop without a family problem. And also let me say Josh Brolin as the crooked cop was great. I didn't need a side-story of him doing tons of drugs and banging prostitutes….but ya know he was doing it.

    American Gangster was a really good flick. It had amazing acting mixed with scenes that shed a new light on drug-trafficking….or should I say Old light. Though since there are so many other drug/crime cop films out there it seems a little been there done that. But don't let that sway you if you enjoy good movies and or crime films. And also, Frank Lucas is one hell of an interesting personality. My man. 8.5 outta 10

  3. Watch American Gangster without preconceived ideas. While the film is long it never drags. You don't get the sense that you've seen this movie before. It's not Serpico. It's not The Wire. It's not The Sopranos. While much is going on, the story is easy to follow. There is action, but this isn't an "action movie".

    Both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe act convincingly and give depth to their characters.

    The film leaves you wanting to know more about about happened to the lead characters. You care about them that much. Now *that's* film making.

  4. Now i've heard some mixed reactions to this movie, and I must say I don't think that. American Gangster is a perfect gangster film. A rise and fall film, but it is done better than both Empire and Carlito's Way put together. Where Empire fails, American Gangster prevails where historical accuracy is needed as well as a good background story. It's violent and sometimes shocking, but being an avid gangster/crime fan i know that compared to others this is almost nothing.

    A brilliant biopic of New York gangster Frank Lucasm the film also utilises Lucas's relationship with the Italian Mafia perfectly, giving you almost a two way view of the city's underworld. Denzel Washington excels at the part as Lucas, and Russell Crowe as the cop out to get him is almost blinding. Crowe does a great American accent, as well as portraying a cop out to just do his job but can't properly. It's a a film about Lucas's rise to fame in New York's Heroin business, and his fall due to both Crowe and police persistence.

    Like with most gangster films, you are always put off by either the acting or the story. But here this is not the case, you have a true story that does not mask Lucas's violent life but rather portrays it as a life of both murder and violence. It does not glamorise his life in any way, it's a film that says criminals never get away with what they've done. Both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are perfect in the criminal and cop relationship.

    I would say now do not listen to the negative reviews of this film, they do no justice for the film. I'd recommend this film to fans of crime flicks and those who just want a riveting film to watch.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *