We've seen American Gangster's roots plentyas recently as The Departed and as far back as Scarfacebut between its formidable acting duo and story in need of retelling, there's plenty here to intrigue.
Set in late-'60s/early-'70s Harlem, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a relative nobody, an underling driver existing well beneath his gangster mentor Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). But when Bumpy dies, that all changes. Likewise, street cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is small-time, best known for having turned over a boatload of found cash out of the goodness of his heart. But in a way, his status also begins to ascend around the time of Bumpy's death. And so, Lucas and Roberts, both quickly rising through the ranks of their respective law-breaking and abiding hierarchies, are on a collision courseeach without the knowledge the other even existed. Frank doesn't waste any time asserting himself once Bumpy dies, and he will go on to become the only kind of drug peddler with a shot at staying power: opportunistic, ruthless and not one to consume his own product. Lucas' get-rich-quick scheme of importing Vietnamese heroin via U.S. soldiers' caskets eliminates the middleman and nets him millions. But as is always the case, one lapse in vigilance puts him at risk, and Roberts is there waiting.
Behold, moviegoers, the mother lode of acting duosonly we saw Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe together on screen 12 years ago in Virtuosity. Oh well. Truth be told, the short time in which they share scenes has nothing on its buildup thereof, but these two are a marvel in their own separate arcs. Denzel is the gaudier of them, relishing his Scarface-sized villain even more than he did Alonzo in Training Day. It's a top-notch performance to add to a career full of them, and there are a plethora of scenes from which to choose for his Oscar reel. Crowe, meanwhile, isn't quite as riveting as he was a few months ago in 3:10 to Yuma, but that's partly because cinematic good guys always finish second in terms of watchability. And when the climactic confrontation nears, Crowe dials up the tension a few notches. The marquee names, though, are but the tip of the iceberg in this star-studded affair, which also boasts the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor (who recently co-starred with Denzel in Inside Man), Cuba Gooding Jr., Common, Carla Gugino, RZA, John Hawkes, Ted Levine and the legendary Ruby Dee. But Gangster's (no longer hidden) gem is Josh Brolin, currently enjoying a major resurgence. With apologies to Denzel, Brolin's deliciously hateful, corrupt cop might be the best performance here.
Ridley Scott--semi-legendary for his sci-fi (Alien, Blade Runner), action (Gladiator) and feminism (Thelma and Louise)--is not the first director who would come to mind for a gritty, talky, urban period drama, but he displays unforeseen versatility with Gangster. Nothing feels inauthentic here, from the look of Vietnam-era New York City and its inhabitants to the documentary-style feel of the sparse action, and it's a surprisingly restrained effort from Scott that allows for such realism. Other filmmakers might've been tempted to deflect Gangster into shoot-'em-up territory, with, say, an action-centric take on the size of villainry possessed by Lucas, but Scott does well in staying true to what this story is, and is not, about. And while there's nothing especially groundbreaking or unforgettable about his effort, Scott keeps the two and a half hours pretty compelling. Gangster's unsung hero, however, is its real subject, Lucas, and his true story, even more so than the one adapted by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) from Marc Jacobson's New York Times article. It's a fascinating tale of everything that makes for good moviesrace, class, money, drugs, corruptionbrought to the screen vividly by a director who could potentially be in line for his first Oscar.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.