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
Starting off, this probably shouldn't be grouped in as a mob film. For one, Crowe's character is as much the lead as Denzel, this is a cops catching the criminal movie. But also, there's not much mob, it's Frank Lucas at the top and everyone else trying to attach to him, he's one man and that is made very clear.
American Gangster works on numerous levels. It's in part a portrait of late 60s-early 70s Harlem and America, full of drugs and desperation and weakness, where the strong rise above the rest and the cops are dirtier than the rats. As a crime thriller it's entertaining and at 2 hours 37 minutes, never loses interest. But, maybe most surprisingly, it's also a superb character drama and study. Literally every character who steps on screen is compelling, has depth to them, has their motivations, and is tossed into conflict. For example there's a scene early on where Crowe's character Richie and his partner are searching a parked car and find a very large amount of unmarked money in the trunk. Without giving away more, it and the following scenes lead to some surprising moral and character statements by Scott. Richie's morals vs everyone else the temptation of the streets is commonly laid on him throughout the film, and thanks to Crowe's great great performance, it adds a lot to the movie.
Denzel is brilliant here. Frank Lucas, with his collected yet fiery, always powerfully menacing performance is one of the better king bosses I can think of in recent memory. When he's not talking, just the way his face is set, he totally totally gets in this character. The academy would do right to easily give him a nomination this year. I also wanted to add that while the two leads don't get on screen till the last 20 minutes, they have a long extended scene that is pure dynamite and gold. They play off each other perfectly and it's well worth the build-up, and maybe are among the highlights of each performance.
Going through supporting actors, Josh Brolin gives one of the year's most surprising performances as an insufferable and despicable dirty cop. He's so slimy, money-grubbing, and yet intelligent and an equal, he's just cunning. Cuba Gooding, Jr. is decent in his one scene, though it's hampered by being mostly unneeded. Chiwetal Ejifor makes a believable side character though he's not given as much to do, and finally I think Ruby Dee could be a sleeper Best Supporting Actress contender for her role as Mama Lucas. Every other short and thankless role I didn't mention is acted superbly here as well, it's a sign of a great director that they're all so on their game.
Ridley Scott's direction, brilliant, what can you say. He creates New York and the rats living in it to the point with fantastic attention to detail, and most of the scenes in the film are shot and constructed simply perfectly. This includes the short but brutally effective opening scene, which stands as one of the more memorable openings I've seen in a while. Actually any time there's gunplay or action, even if there isn't that much overall, it's stunning. Particularly, at the end there's a police raid scene that stands as the "holyyyy crap" sequence of the film. Going from a hallway to a heroine preparing apartment, and without revealing anything more, it's incredible, simply incredible. Remember when people were going nuts over the tracking shot gimmick in Children of Men? I felt that way about this one. If there's a god, Ridley will finally pick up his directing Oscar this year, he deserves it for this and his wide career.
American Gangster is probably one of the best cop-based films I've seen, and up there with gangster ones. It does one of the best jobs of examining the rise and fall of a crime or drug boss right from the beginning, and dives right into on the other side what it means to be a cop and to strive for something, as well as just telling an awesome and magnificently directed gangster story.
One of the year's very finest films.
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