The crime/cop drama has had resurgence within the last ten years. You have your big-budget awards pieces like “The Departed” to the smaller ones like the recent “We Own the Night.” The drug biopics have been around for awhile in much the same fashion. There are the big-budget, established ones like “Scarface” to the smaller, quality films like “Blow.” Ridley Scott’s recent film “American Gangster” is very much in the vein of “The Departed” meets “Blow” in that you have a high octane, f-bomb filled, drugs galore smash but in the end does that make it truly original?
“American Gangster” shows the rise of Harlem’s own Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a man who started out as the driver of the crime boss before him. Frank rises through the ranks and irks the drug lord Tango (Idris Elba) who is the main man dealing hard core drugs. Frank starts heading out to Vietnam, amidst the war at the time, to import heroin into the US at 100% purity. At the same time you have struggling cop Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who is attempting to leave the cop life and be a lawyer. When his junkie partner dies after taking Franks’ drugs he starts a crime unit to take down the cities newest drug kingpin.
The movie is very well done and shows a great slice of life in the time period. As a kid who has always assumed drugs started out here to begin with it was great to see how hard drugs like heroin and cocaine started out in the jungles of Vietnam. For violence fans this is very much like “The Departed” in that Scott isn’t afraid to use harsh language and graphic violence to show how brutal these people were. The opening scene is a man being lit on fire and shot, think you can handle that? It also doesn’t pull away from showing addiction which is great in a movie like this because while Lucas lives a glamorous life there are people dying at his hands. It’s a great character drama that makes you think hard about how these characters live with themselves.
Sadly “American Gangster” had too many comparisons to “The Departed” for my taste. While it does show a great and true story, there are too many clichés that are used. All the time I thought “Why didn’t Ridley Scott just direct The Departed in the first place.” Also if you are not a fan of watching people shoot up, don’t see this movie because the camera doesn’t pull away. The film is two and a half hours and at times, you really feel it. When the action is on-screen you can’t pull away but there are a lot of dialogue scenes and whatnot that really bring the movie to a more leisure pace. If you’re expecting two and a half hours of non-stop everything then you might be disappointed. I also felt that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe didn’t get enough time in the same scenes. You’re constantly waiting for a massive showdown between the two characters that isn’t satisfying at the end.
The acting is what transcends this movie, in my opinion. Washington and Crowe are stand-out when they’re on-screen. While both can have a tendency to overact (I’m talking to you Denzel) the chemistry between them is phenomenal. I also have to commend Josh Brolin for playing the corrupt cop Trupo. Brolin was terrifying every time he was onscreen and he was so captivating to watch. The weak link is the females that are in the film like Carla Gugino who just seem to be eye candy. I would have liked an equally strong leading lady.
Overall I wish “American Gangster” was more. More action, more wows, more something and it failed to deliver. While it’s great as a film don’t go in expecting this to surpass “The Departed,” expect it to be a copy.
Look for "American Gangster" to open in theaters on November 2, 2007.