“Quitting while you’re ahead isn’t the same as quitting.”
Rated R. Released on DVD February 19th. Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin and Cuba Gooding, Jr.
American Gangster is very similar in structure and in plot to the first season of The Wire (although, not nearly as good, of course) with a mysterious drug lord rising to power and a ragtag group of detectives tracking him down, with the action focusing equally on both sides of the story with very little overlap. It even has Idris Elba (AKA Stringer Bell) in a supporting role.
The jarring, short first scene introduces us to the lead of one side of the story, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the driver/enforcer for Harlem crime lord Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), a powerful man who is beloved in his community, but ultimately, “…didn’t own his own company. White man owned it, so they owned him.” Lucas refers to Johnson being controlled by the Italian mob, so when he rises to the top of the Harlem crime scene, he makes sure that the same doesn’t happen to him.
On the other side is Richie Roberts, a divorced, womanizing Jersey homicide detective and aspiring lawyer with childhood friends & softball buddies high up in the mob. He falls from grace when he and his partner stumble upon a large stash of untraceable money and he convinces his partner that they have to turn it in. While this is a little heavy-handed, it establishes pretty clearly that Roberts is a honest cop, and on a force filled with crooked cops, he becomes shunned by all but his superiors. Because of this, though, he’s given a shot to lead a special drug task force and pick the men he wants on it.
Washington has, as always, a really strong screen presence and though he’s a little over the top at times, he commands the screen like no other and is very good overall. He plays Lucas as a level-headed, innovative businessman who puts family first — a portrayal that is probably a little different than the real-life Lucas. Crowe is believable and solid as Roberts, though he is overshadowed here. Josh Brolin, in a departure from his role in No Country For Old Men (but keeping the facial hair) shows off his range as a slimy, corrupt NYPD detective who butts heads with both Lucas & Roberts. Ruby Dee bagged an Oscar nomination for her role as Lucas’ mother, but she really only has about ten minutes of screen time, and the nod is really more of a lifetime achievement nod.
There are also lots and lots of recognizable actors, from Cuba Gooding Jr. as a rival drug lord to Chiwetel Ejiofor (always good) as Lucas’ brother and right-hand man. Also featured are Armand Assante, Carla Gugino, Ted Levine, Joe Morton and rappers Common, RZA and T.I. Scott’s direction is not too notable — he lets the story and the actors do the work, but the climactic action sequences are pretty well done.
Overall, American Gangster is a solid flick that isn’t great but above-average in most respects. It has some tense scenes and good performances but most of all it’s easy to watch and enjoy as a well-made Hollywood blockbuster with big time Hollywood stars and a big-time Hollywood director.