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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

American Gangster (review)

Badfellas

Remember how oh-my-god cool it was to hear, all those years back, that Michael Mann, with his movie Heat, was gonna get Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together onscreen for the first time? And then they were hardly together at all except for that one scene, but it turned out to be okay because that one scene was incredible?
American Gangster is like that, except it’s got the combustible combination of Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington onscreen together for the first time. Even if they were actually onscreen together for the first time that same year as Heat — 1995 — in the bit of sci-fi nonsense Virtuosity. Because no one talks about that movie, and no one would even have remembered it if I hadn’t brought it up in the first place. So forget I even mentioned it.

So: Ridley Scott’s American Gangster brings together Crowe and Washington, both of whom stalk the screen, as they always do, as if The Movies were invented for them, and how freakin’ explosive can it be to smash these guys into each other? Except they don’t get the opportunity to face off onscreen until more than two hours into the film’s two-hour-and-forty-minute runtime… and that’s fine. Because their concurrent stories run parallel and keep you in a state of constant suspense and dread: you forget that the necessities of plot and the conventions of Hollywood narrative require that their two stories eventually collide in Scott’s masterful back-and-forth, which is riveting enough to, ironically, make the crash seem inevitable in a way that is not demanded by cliché but is a function of a certain sort of fated irony.

Irony is all over this movie in the most confounding, and, ahem, ironically, the most satisfying way, a way that makes you want to shake your head at the paradox of it while also acknowledging its truth. American Gangster is one of those films that, the more you think about it, the more you feel like you’re falling down Alice’s rabbit hole into a world where the rules work but they piss you off because it seems like, if the world were good and decent, they wouldn’t.

The world is not good and decent, perhaps — might go the theme of Gangster — but sometimes people are, and sometimes only accidentally.

Crowe’s (3:10 to Yuma, Cinderella Man) Richie Roberts is a New Jersey cop, a rough-edged working-class guy who’s trying to better himself by studying law at night school. His colleagues already think he’s “better” than he needs to be: he’s scorned as a “boy scout” for actually following the laws he’s meant to be upholding. But he’s also a cocky bastard who hangs out with a childhood friend who’s now a mafioso; oh, and he’s kinda mean to his ex-wife and kinda ignores his kid. And when he stumbles onto Frank Lucas’s criminal endeavors, he latches onto the case like a bulldog and won’t let go until he brings Lucas down.

Washington’s (Deja Vu, Inside Man) Frank Lucas was a driver and general dogsbody to the godfather of Harlem, until the godfather died and Frank, looking to better himself, took over the operation. He comes up with a scheme for racheting up his drug business by eliminating the middle man and importing heroin himself directly from Thai suppliers; his business and marketing acumen is astonishing, and before long he’s selling junk twice as good as anything else on the street at half the price. It’s the American dream of entrepreneurship, of making customers happy — really happy, in this case — while raking in the dough. It’s win-win. Oh, Frank is utterly ruthless and won’t hesitate to put a bullet in the brain of anyone who steps on his toes, but he believes himself a gentleman, and he is, in his own perverse way. He’s even good to his mother.

This is all based on a true story that went down in the early 1970s — Frank and Richie are real; the now elderly Lucas actually worked as a consultant on the film — but the ring of truth comes not from its factualness but from Steven Zaillian’s (The Interpreter, Gangs of New York) brilliant script, which highlights in what wickedly different directions such qualities as persistence and a dedication to hard work can take people; and from Scott’s (Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator) production, which is committed to authenticity. Scott shot in real, unfakeable New York City and Thai locations — no Toronto or Hawaii stand-ins here — and Zaillian (along with Crowe and Washington) created in the cinematic Richie and Frank two fascinatingly contradictory and complicated men. You can’t entirely hate Frank, for all his terribleness, and you can’t entirely like Richie, for all his virtues. And you can’t forget them.

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MPAA: rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Hey, I remember Virtuosity! I was already a Washington fan going in, but I’d never seen Russell Crowe before and I was very impressed by him. Yeah, the movie isn’t completely logical, but I want to go rewatch it soon to compare/contrast the leads.

    I’m on the fence about going to see American Gangster. So how violent is it? Godfather? Eastern Promises? I could tolerate both of those because both had strong scripts and excellent acting. What about this one?

  • MaryAnn

    Hey, I remember *Virtuosity,* too — Russell Crowe is butt-naked in it!

    *Gangster* has some moments of explosive violence, but it’s not as overwhelmingly violent as other movies of its type. It’s more about the cat-and-mouse between the two characters.

  • Runster

    Goddamn, MaryAnn…
    Everytime I come to this site, I find somthing to annoy me and delight me. The Movie-kus, for instance, are horribly annoying, but your reviews are pretty much second to none. Whenever there is a new movie out, and I want an informed, intelligent review, this is the first site I come to. I’ve deleted you from my favorites four times, but I keep coming back anayway…
    You are almost always on the mark, and the few cases where I don’t agree with you (titanic, superbad), you always state your case brilliantly.
    I can’t wait to see American Gangster, knowing you championed it in this way.

    Love/hate relationships. You gotta love em’:-)
    Keep up the good work.

  • I saw and generally enjoyed American Gangster today (hey, three movies in the theater in five days – almost a record for me).

    I do love Denzel, but he always has the same sounding voice no matter who he plays. Having heard the really annoying voice of the real Frank Lucas, I can kind of understand why he chose not to try. Still, I only heard Russell’s accent waver one time in the whole movie. And, speaking of accents, I recognized Chiwetel Ejiofor right away, but couldn’t place him for most of the movie since his British accent was gone.

    American Gangster was a big, sweeping movie that was generally pretty well executed. I liked the fact that there wasn’t a lot of gore, though there was a fair amount of mayhem. I found the shooting-up scenes more upsetting than the out-and-out murders.

    There were two careless edits in the movie. The first over Frank’s mother’s new house; the whole family appeared in New York (or New Jersey) really fast. There needed to be at least one more line or two to explain how everyone got there. Second, there was a jump from early 1973 (when the Americans were finally stopping fighting in Viet Nam) to early 1975 (when Saigon fell to the communists) that seemed to practically be at the same time. There needed to be a bit more of a sense that time had passed, even if it was just a caption.

  • The Party Crasher

    Josh Brolin randomly shoots and kills a dog. It took a second to digest the scene. “Did I just see Josh Brolin (Brand Walsh) put a bullet in a dog’s head?” It then occured to me that Scott has finally made his masterpiece with this one scene alone. Forget a naked Joanna Cassidy and her snake. Josh Brolin and the dog rules.

    On a sidenote, has anyone ever watched a film with Josh Brolin in the cast list thinking “This film could’ve used more Josh Brolin?”

  • is “Party Crasher” josh brolin’s agent, or brother-in-law, or something?

  • Josh Brolin – the guy with one expression. One/half when he has a large moustache.

  • The Party Crasher

    I know there’s plenty of Josh Brolin haters out there. So what if he gave Diane Lane a black eye.

    He’s still Josh Brolin, and that makes it “cool”. I’m not even going to use the word cool anymore. The essence of “cool” and Josh Brolin are analogous. I’m just going say “That was a Josh Brolin movie.”

  • MaryAnn

    Brolin may have only one expression, but when it’s appropriate, it works. It works here, and it works in *No Country for Old Men,* too.

  • pierre bennu

    I saw the movie yesterday and it was good but i wanted it to be great. My 2 big issues with it were

    #1 they called the movie “American Gangster” there were 2 stories. WHY? The films that folks compared this to were “the godfather” and “scarface” each of those films were compelling stories about the title character. “American Gangster” was about a cop who has marital problems and (slight spoiler ahead) had to over come his fear of public speaking. WHAT!?! I dig Me. Crowe as a actor but the story should have really been more about Mr. Washington’s character. I feel there were several missed opportunities.

    #2 TOO MANY RAPPERS!
    There are so many talented black actors out there that get no shine. Actors that i fell both the audience and the story would have benefited from some screen time with 3 Oscar winning actors and the likes of Ruby Dee

    The only moment I was taken out of the illusion of the film was when all the cops were in one room talking and there was a shot of the RZA (a rapper/producer) who was wearing a sleeveless shirt and in FULL FOCUS was his “WU-TANG” tattoo. I hope they catch that before the DVD release.

  • Pedro

    Good movie, great acting as always from Denzel, and Russ Crowe is above his usual, too, although his accent slips back to australian at times.

    the ending was the best part, as these two dogged men manage to see eye to eye. that was one great scene.

  • Vergil

    I wonder how many people that noticed Crowe’s “Australian” accent actually heard a slight New Jersey accent. Russell Crowe once again shows that he is in the top five actors working today. I love Denzel, but Denzel plays Denzel. Denzel is a star with charisma. Crowe is an actor with skill.

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