Everybody loves the old story of rags to riches, especially when it involves drugs, violence and organized crime.
American Gangster is based on the true story of ’70s drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who used the coffins of dead U.S. soldiers to transfer heroin from war-torn Vietnam to the States. Frank takes control of the New York drug trade and soon leads the pack as the biggest supplier of heroin in the U.S.
On his case is the broken-down detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who not only has to deal with his failing marriage, but also the fact that he might be the only honest cop in the neighborhood.
American Gangster concentrates on a parallel storyline just like Godfather II did with Michael and Vito Corleone. Instead of getting a contrasting storyline of mobster and mobster, we see the life of an honest cop and an upcoming gangster. As Richie assembles a group of lowlife cops, Frank brings his brothers up from home to help run his new business. As Richie’s marriage begins to fall apart, Frank begins to develop a love interest with Miss Puerto Rico 1970.
At the film’s core is an amazing performance by Washington (Training Day), who plays Frank as a charismatic and courteous character. These characteristics contrast well with Frank’s dark side when it comes out. In one scene he tosses Christmas turkeys to a hungry crowd, while in another he shoots a rival in broad daylight. Washington makes his character appear more like a cold-blooded businessman than a notorious gangster.
Unfortunately, Crowe’s character is not as exciting to watch as Washington’s. It is not that Crowe’s performance isn’t remarkable, but the way that Richie’s story is written makes his character dreary and dull. The character of Richie does not allow Crowe to make all of his amazing charisma and talent shine on the screen.
Surprisingly, Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) has one of the most remarkable performances. He is the true villain of the film. Not only is he a crooked cop, but one who takes pleasure in taking money from people. Brolin takes a character that could have been a potentially forgettable dirty cop and makes him into an unforgettable and unsettling creep.
People who are expecting to see Washington and Crowe on the screen together are going to be a little disappointed. They do not meet until the last 10 minutes of the film. However, those 10 minutes are the best of the film. Frank and Richie finally confront each other face to face in a very well-shot scene. There is not much dialogue, but the tension in the air says everything we need to know.
The film is very long, with a running time of 157 minutes. While every minute is needed to develop the characters of Richie and Frank, it may feel at times like the film is dragging on. This movie is not for viewers who can’t sit in the theater for long periods of time.
With great gangster films like Goodfellas, The Godfather and Casino, you might feel like you have seen this film before. Zealously detailed era crime sagas are not hard to find anymore. That doesn’t mean that it is a bad movie, but just one that you feel like you have seen before.
Those expecting some kind of modern crime masterpiece are most likely going to come away from this movie very disappointed. However, fans of gangster films will be entertained by the amazing job that Ridley Scott does of capturing the look and feel of the 1970 Harlem drug era.