Saturday, November 10, 2007

Movie Review: American Gangster

There is a fascinating story behind American Gangster. Unfortunately, director Ridley Scott waited until two and a half hours into movie to start telling it, and then spent about ten minutes telling it.

As with any fictionalized account “based on a true story,” it’s hard to imagine what parts of American Gangster are really true to real life events. The movie’s twin foci are Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a black gangster who revolutionizes the heroin business in the late 60s, early 70s by buying directly from the source and underselling his more established competition, and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), and impossibly honest cop charged with cleaning up New York City’s illegal drug trade. Scott takes his time developing both characters, bringing them closer and closer together as Lucas gets bigger and Roberts pieces together the city’s criminal pecking order from his New Jersey post.

The story is familiar to anyone who has seen Scarface, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, New Jack City, or any number of gangster classics. And American Gangster might have been ranked favorably to any one of them had it come out a couple of decades before. As it stands, the story arc is predictable, garden variety hubris. Lucas challenged the existing structure, shakes things up, gets to the top of the scene, and then falls. Washington and Crowe are pitch perfect playing familiar characters – the menacing, ambitious monster behind a cool, friendly fa├žade and the dedicated but flawed everyman hero.

Ridley’s story unravels neatly, with only a couple of minor faults. The story of Lucas’s wife, Eva, feels extraneous and the role leaves little for Lymari Nadal to do but stand around looking lithesome until she has to react to occasional danger. And Roberts’ transition from cop to lawyer is quick and jarring. You wind up wondering how he went from lead investigator to lead prosecutor on the same case, if there isn’t some rule about self-interest that would prevent such a thing.

But the court sequence is the most interesting story. Yes, the montage where Lucas becomes a cooperative witness seems a little too friendly (I could imagine the Partridge Family’s “Get Happy” played in the background and sent off to VH1 as a promotional tool). But Lucas reveals a bit of himself in the beginning of the interrogation scene, about his family’s abuse at the hand of crooked police officers, that could have been a powerful bit of knowledge for the audience to have two and a half hours earlier.

Once Lucas is convicted, we get the subtitles finishing off the story. We learn that Lucas’s testimony led to the arrest of about 150 people involved in the drug trade, and that despite being sentenced to 70 years, he was released in 1981. And when he got into trouble again, Richie Roberts, who had left the prosecutor’s office, was his defense counsel, and that the two remain friends.

American Gangster is a passable action movie with some extraordinary performances. But it could have been an incredible character study about two extremely different people and the reasons why they become friends. Their interaction during the initial trial, and their relationship afterwards, is fraught with friction and dramatic possibility, and the potential for something that seems a little less standard the story Ridley ultimately decided to tell. At more than two and a half hours, you would think there would be enough room to tell more of that story. For now, you’ll have to rely on Google and a few books on Lucas for that story.

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