‘American Gangster’ (2007) revisited

❉ An appreciation of a stunning piece of action that displays the genius of director Ridley Scott, by We Are Cult’s Nick Clement.

The A-list pedigree that surrounds the big, brawny, macho piece of entertainment, American Gangster is a formidable group. Directed by Ridley Scott, produced by Brian Grazer, written by Steven Zaillian, and starring powerhouse actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, it would have been a shocking surprise if the film had turned out to be anything less than a spectacular entertainment.

Upon first viewing I felt it was one of the best movies of its year, and after numerous repeat viewings over the years, I’ve really come to love it. Everything from the top-notch production values, the larger-than-life story, the salty dialogue, and the sly, cool aesthetic of Scott and master cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac, The Game, Birth, Elephant) all combine for a thrilling true-crime saga that never sags once during its close to three hour run time.

Denzel Washington, in one of his best performances, is Frank Lucas, a smart and classy businessman whose business, it turns out, is heroin. Lots of it. Lucas, who for years was a driver and protégé to Harlem’s original gangster number one, Bumpy Johnson (a sneering Clarence Williams III), takes over the drug trade in New York City after Johnson drops dead from a heart attack.

However, Lucas has bigger plans than Johnson could have ever imagined. After recruiting what seems to be almost all of his extended family from North Carolina (mother, brothers, cousins, etc.) and relocating them to Harlem and surrounding areas, Lucas, in an effort to avoid using a middle-man in his drug operation, used a family connection stretching to the jungles of Vietnam, and travelled to the heart of darkness himself, striking a deal with a heroin manufacturer to bring the drug from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the streets of New York.

The potency of this heroin was twice as strong, and with the absence of the middle man, half the cost. This bold manoeuvring is made possible by crooked military personnel, who shipped the drugs back to the states in a variety of methods, most notoriously, in the coffins of dead American soldiers. It’s too wild to be true, but it is.

Running on a parallel track to Lucas’s story is the account of honest-cop Richie Roberts, smoothly under played by bull-dog performer Russell Crowe, in another excellent piece of manly acting. Roberts is the classic case of great cop but bad husband/father.

Going through a messy divorce and child custody hearings with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino, super sexy as always), Roberts is as much of a screw up at home as he is a great, truthful cop, one working in an otherwise almost totally corrupt police force. The fact that he doesn’t keep $1 million in unmarked drug-money that he finds in a dealers car, something he easily could have done without every getting caught, instead opting to turn it in as police evidence, is enough to mark him as suspect by his fellow police officers, which doesn’t help him as he moves into the tricky waters of New York City’s drug scene.

Roberts catches wind of the new drug trade in the city, and takes it on obsessively. Battling a seriously crooked fellow officer named Trupo, played with menacing glee by Josh Brolin, Roberts is almost a one-man task force; not only is he battling the drug dealers, he has to watch his back for deceitful detectives who’d rather take bribes than make arrests.

The brilliance of Zaillian’s screenplay is the way that the personal and professional lives of Lucas and Roberts mirror each other, while also being total opposites. Lucas is a family man, the kind of guy who takes his mother to church on Sunday and eats breakfast with all of his brothers. But he’s also the kind of guy who’ll shoot a rival dealer in the head in broad daylight. He’s even not afraid to threaten his brothers and cousins to make a point.

Roberts, on the other hand, is a terrible dad and husband, but he operates incredibly as a cop and he loves his job. He even makes time to study for and then take the bar exam. I was reminded of Michael Mann’s masterwork Heat with the back-and-forth of these characters; similar to Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino’s characters, Washington and Crowe are basically the same people, separated by opposite sides of the law, but brought together by a common goal—what they know best.

America Gangster, working almost as two movies in one, allows its two stars to meet, only at the end, also similar to Heat, in a terrific sequence where the two men have an intelligent conversation, rather than a bloody smack-down.

Zaillian, no stranger to expensive, populist fare (he’s written Hannibal, Clear & Present Danger, and Mission: Impossible amongst others) is also a master wordsman and social commentary purveyor (other credits include A Civil Action, Schindler’s List and Gangs of NY) and the balance that he brings to both stories in American Gangster is nothing short of amazing.

Cohesive and engrossing, the story’s narrative moves at a clip, due also in part to Pietro Scalia’s dynamic film editing, introducing the audience to a bevy of colourful characters and various locations (jungles, city streets, drug houses) in a coherent, unhurried fashion that still carries pep and verve.

Scott directs with energy and ‘70s flavour, but never becomes show-offy or garish. Less overtly stylish than his work in stuff like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Hannibal, Scott gives American Gangster a shadowy, smoky, rich look; the immaculate production design by frequent collaborator Arthur Max is a major help as well.

Taking cues from such crime films as Brian De Palma’s Scarface and The Untouchables, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Scott takes this familiar genre and spices it up in new ways, never forgetting about the fascinating procedural at the heart of the story.

This is confident, gripping direction of an ambitious script which never loses sight of its tight focus, even when its grander world view is so vividly displayed. That’s the genius of Scott as a director.

As always, Scott infuses the film with enough vibrant period detail for two movies, but never allows his obsession with realistic surroundings to interfere with the intimate moments of his layered plot. He also stages a bravura drug raid/shootout that is the very definition of awesome.

Bloody but never gory and gritty at all times, it’s a stunning piece of action directing that ranks up there with the best of these types of set pieces. This is the kind of big-ticket entertainment that only a craftsman of Scott’s stature could create.

❉ ‘American Gangster’ (2007) Cast: Denzel Washington, Cuba Gooding Jr., Russell Crowe, Rza, John Ortiz, Josh Brolin, Rube Dee, Ted Levine, John Hawkes, Yul Vazquez. Director: Ridley Scott. Running time: 2h, 23m.

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

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