Armed men hijack a New York City subway train, holding the passengers hostage in return for a ransom, and turning an ordinary day's work for dispatcher Walter Garber into a face-off with the mastermind behind the crime.
Following the death of his employer and mentor, Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas establishes himself as the number one importer of heroin in the Harlem district of Manhattan. He does so by buying heroin directly from the source in South East Asia and he comes up with a unique way of importing the drugs into the United States. As a result, his product is superior to what is currently available on the street and his prices are lower. His alliance with the New York Mafia ensures his position. It is also the story of a dedicated and honest policeman, Richie Roberts, who heads up a joint narcotics task force with the Federal government. Based on a true story. Written by
a big, intense American crime movie, led by stars and director in top form
American Gangster seems on the surface to be what has been dubbed by some critics as "the black Scarface." As Ridley Scott's new film details, this isn't really the case aside from the point of 'rose up from nothing became something through crime', which could be said about almost every gangster film including the Godfather. Here Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian, without calling attention to it ala Paul Haggis, have made a film about class issues underneath the typical gangster-movie form. Even more than the Departed, one sees as the film goes on an environment of paradox: Frank Lucas was a low-life, a killer, a ruthless thug, and at the same time found time to take his mother to church every Sunday and gave out turkeys to folks in the neighborhood while providing them enough dope to die off in the process.
In fact, Scarface has got nothing on Frank Lucas when it comes to moral complexity: here's a man who did rise up out of poverty, learned the stakes of gang life as a driver for the Harlem boss for fifteen years, and then after he died cut out the middle-man as an importer of the freshest product of heroin right out of Vietnam. Then through this there's a whole other level to American Gangster; Scott and Zaillian could have made it simply a saga of betrayals and investigation via Richie Roberts. But the side that one saw in Serpico is amplified here- it becomes all the more engrossing to see how the crooked cops and "honest" gangster Lucas were linked together, which also leads to an ending that amps up the interest. Lucas didn't get out like Henry Hill, but a good man all the same? Probably not (he ended up in jail again, as the film doesn't point out).
So there's a lot of story to explore, and Scott makes it one of the most invigorating, nostalgic (ironically speaking) New York crime films in years, as far as the storytelling goes. And like Heat, Scott gets a lot of mileage from his star power. Washington goes even deeper into the role of the villain than he did in Training Day- he plays him as classic family man, cold businessman, and charming man-of-the-community. He makes it so much his role that you can't imagine anyone else going down a Harlem street shooting a guy point blank in the head. And Crowe also adds some good subtlety to the piece, a flawed man with his family and someone who tries to keep his morality straight (the million dollars given in to the station) amidst total bully-crooks like Josh Brolin's "special" detective. By the time the two stars finally sit down for one scene, it's on par with De Niro and Pacino.
Why not a 10/10 or 4 stars? It is, despite a rightfully fleshed out narrative, with some unnecessary bits (Cuba Gooding Jr, what happened there?) on a two hour and forty minute picture. But Scott does make American Gangster gain momentum as it goes along and reaches a powerhouse climax that is first intense and bloody (it IS Scott after all), followed by a striking human angle. And it holds nothing on Scarface, at the end of it all, as far as being legitimately dramatic without the ham, as the actors and director click for most part on material that just needs to be told without any pretension- and with that dose of significance of real urban crime in the 1970s in NYC.
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