Wednesday, November 14, 2007

American Gangster/ **** (R)

Frank Lucas: Denzel Washington
Richie Roberts: Russell Crowe
Huey Lucas: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Detective Trupo: Josh Brolin
Eva: Lymari Nadal
Lou Toback: Ted Levine
Freddie Spearman: John Hawkes
Nicky Barnes: Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Dominic Cattano: Armand Assante
Mama Lucas: Ruby Dee

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Steven Zaillian, based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson. Running time: 157 min. Rated R (for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality).

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the new crime drama “American Gangster” is that it was directed by British filmmaker Ridley Scott. Certainly the film’s level of excellence achieved is no surprise coming from Scott, director of such classics as “Alien”, “Blade Runner”, and “Black Hawk Down”. But it is surprising that a Brit could capture such profound observations about American crime.

The movie opens in a department store with a Harlem crime kingpin remarking to his driver that there is no ownership of anything any more. By eliminating the middleman, department stores and such have taken the businessman out of the equation. Everyone has access to everything, and nothing is earned like it once was.

It is 1968, and those observations are the last that particular crimelord will ever make. His driver and closest confidant is Frank Lucas, a man who will become the biggest fish in the pond of the New York drug scene throughout the 1970s by eliminating the middleman and bringing the drugs directly to the streets of Manhattan himself, using U.S. military transports out of Vietnam to bring in a better product at a cheaper cost. Yet he never loses sight of his former boss’s passion for ownership. He models his organization after the Italian mob and keeps the business within his family, reducing the threat of betrayal and maintaining tight control over his product.

Richie Roberts is the New Jersey detective who is trying to break up the surge in drug trade spilling out of the city. He is one of those obsessive cops who can’t keep a family together thanks to his dedication to his job and some philandering on the side. He is an honest cop ostracized from his department for turning in over a million in cash found in a suspect’s car trunk and failing to take a cut for himself. By the conclusion of Frank’s and Richie’s stories, Richie’s honesty will provide one of the more unique endings to a drug crime story in cinematic history. It is the story of two wholly driven men who are after something neither their peers nor their actions can predict.

Denzel Washington provides another strong performance as the gangster Lucas. He proves the cold brutality displayed in his Oscar winning performance for “Training Day” was no fluke. But this villain is deeper than the one he played in that film, with a stronger sense of pride and purpose. Washington’s warmth is seen in the way he involves his family in his endeavors. His mother (Ruby Dee, “Do the Right Thing”) provides a moral base that prevents him from succumbing to many of the pitfalls of his criminal life. And his relationship with his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Children of Men”) rings truer than more typical Judas portrayals of brothers in crime.

Russell Crowe’s Richie appears on the surface to be a mess of a man; his honesty is more of a hindrance to his life than a benefit. Crowe, who can play such a cool criminal in films like “3:10 to Yuma”, does just as good a job with the basket cases. We’re introduced to Richie during a law class as he attempts to better his position by pursuing a law degree. Asked to present a mock case in front of the class, he is just a bundle of nerves. Later in court, trying to gain custody rights for his son, he admits that as a father and husband he is unfit and does not deserve custody. But when it comes to pursuing the justice he wants to enforce, he lets no one stand in his way. And Richie’s justice is more broad-minded than it may seem at first. He is not content with just shutting down some petty drug dealers.

I admire that Scott’s direction doesn’t overplay moments. Lucas’s and Roberts’s actions rarely carry over beyond the moments in which they happen. When Roberts is confronted with bribes from both friends and enemies, the camera doesn’t linger on him looking for the inner struggle. Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“A Civil Action”) keep his character simple, never overcomplicating his actions with questions of honesty. He’s just plain honest.

While some moments with Lucas are more sharply emphasized, like his courtship of Eva (Lymari Nadal, “Battlestar Galactica”) or the gift of a mansion for his mother, these serve to show what is important to him. His dealings with a rival drug dealer and a particularly rotten cop played by Josh Brolin (“Planet Terror”) are brief and impersonal. Pay back is a matter of business, not personal revenge. Scott uses the style of his direction to define both characters rather than overwrought dialogue and flashy camera moves.

Looking back at Scott’s filmography highlights his evolution as filmmaker. Over the past few years he has dedicated much of his efforts to grandiose epics, like “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven”, with a few personal films scattered in there, such as “Matchstick Men” and last year’s “A Good Year”. “American Gangster” feels like a fusion of the two styles.

For a long time, Scott was accused of making impersonal films that lacked character development. Looking back at the two crime dramas he directed in the eighties, “Black Rain” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”, it is as if “American Gangster” were directed by an entirely different filmmaker. While Scott still doesn’t linger on his character studies, “American Gangster” exemplifies an economic approach to character development. The film is at once a character study and a crime epic, much like David Fincher’s “Zodiac” from earlier this year, but with a vastly different execution.

It would be easy to try comparing “American Gangster” to other crime classics, like “The Godfather” and “GoodFellas”. But this would be a mistake. While those films play like some modern version of the Greek tragedy, “American Gangster” has something much more specific to say about the world we live in―a world of consumerism and a broadening world view. Lucas and Roberts are two men who are able to adapt to our evolving climate. In doing so, they point out our country’s weaknesses and strengths. And their story is pretty incredible on top of that.

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