American Gangster


Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by:Steve Zaillian
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ted Levine, Ruby Dee
Released: January 10, 2008
Grade: A

Most people who get recurrent work in the film world have talent.  Without it, they’d be replaced as quickly as you’ve read this sentence.  There are thousands of hopefuls knocking on the door who are waiting for their opportunity to break though.  As good as these regular actors / writers / directors are, there is an upper echelon who have achieved greatness.  When a group of these folk get to together to make a movie, you can be pretty confident that it’s going to be “damn great”.

A perfect example is American Gangster.  It is directed by Ridley Scott, the man who helmed such films as Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down.  It is written by Steven Zaillian, the man who came up with the script for films such as Schindler’s List, A Civil Action and Gangs Of New York.  It stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, two likeable actors with 3 Academy Award wins and 8 Academy Award nominations between them.  Therefore, it should come as no surprise to hear me say that American Gangster is “damn great”.

It’s set in New York in the late 1960s and two stories are told concurrently.  The first is of Frank Lucas (Washington).  Mafia heavyweights have been selling large quantities of drugs on streets of Harlem.  Frank knows that these drugs are of low quality and with all the middlemen involved, the price is too high.  There’s money to be made.

Through a few contacts in South East Asia, Frank finds a creative way to import 100% pure heroin from South East Asia.  He and his crew are now selling a product called “Blue Magic” that offers “twice the quality for half the price”.  Soon enough, Frank is the new big boy in town.  He has a lot of money and a lot of power.  Success has its price however.  Frank’s sudden rise to fame has ruffled some feathers within the corrupt police force and the New York Mafia.

The second story is of Richie Roberts (Crowe).  Richie is a New Jersey police detective with little going for him.  His partner is a habitual drug user and his wife is about to divorce him.  On top of this, his ethical “do things by the book” style has alienated him from his dishonest work colleagues.  It would seem that he has few friends.

Richie is asked by his boss to assemble a team and set up a new Drug Enforcement Agency.  Their job is to identify the major drug suppliers and dealers and come up with enough evidence to prosecute them.  It’s an almost impossible task.  In Richie’s own words, “if you stop bringing dope into this country about 100,000 people and going to be out of a job.”

As you can see, this puts Frank and Richie on a collision course.  It may sound like a simple good vs. evil story but there’s more to it than that.  It’s interesting to watch each side and the way they go about achieving their objectives.  It reminded me of the 1995 film, Heat (directed by Michael Mann and starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro).  The tension builds as you wait for the moment where the two leading characters will come face-to-face.  Washington and Crowe are great throughout and yes, their confrontation in the film’s finale is worth the wait.

Based on actual events, American Gangster is a two and a half hour journey that will keep you engrossed.