Friday, November 2, 2007

American Gangster

“No black man has accomplished what the American Mafia hasn’t in a hundred years!”

“Frank Lucas is the most dangerous man walking the streets of our city.”

Much like Michael Mann‘s Heat the film follows two separate and concurrent tales on opposite sides of the law. On one hand there is Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who after the death of his mentor takes over the drug business in Harlem and, in turning into a profitable empire, pisses off everyone who knows him. The other story follows Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the lone good honest cop left in New Jersey whose honor has cost him a marriage, custody of his son (his wife is played by Carla Gugino), and the anger and resentment of his fellow cops.

Roberts is given a new assignment by his commander (Ted Levine) and runs his own group of guys to track down and bring down the drug suppliers and dealers. Over time and hard work the unknown Frank Lucas is brought to Roberts’ attention and their two worlds collide.

Based on a true story the film shows us Frank’s rise to glory and the personal life and ups and downs of both men. At a running time of 157 minutes it’s more than a little long, and it meanders at times, but the story continues to progress forward culminating in the confrontation between the two men (much like Heat). After this there’s a prolonged, yet condensed epilogue, which tells us what happened next.

Much like Blow the film spends a long time showcasing the drug trade and how things work while intermingling the personal life and problems brought on by the business. It isn’t anything new, but there is a certain style to it and even if it goes on too long at times it remains interesting.

Aside from length I had some trouble with how noble Roberts appeared to everyone else in the picture. Although in reality many of the cops during this period were on the take the film makes it seem that all of them were and they all hated straight shooters like Roberts, yet when Roberts needs to put together a new squad of guys who he can trust he doesn’t have any problems? There’s a logic gap there. It’s not a big issue, but there are moments like this where the film uses generalities and simplifications to justify behaviors and events, something you wouldn’t think a near three-hour film would need to do.

People who haven’t seen Heat or Blow, both of which I think are slightly better films, each in their own way, will probably like this a little more than I did. Given a choice seeing a cops and robbers flick starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro or Crowe and Washington, I’ll take Pacino and De Niro (though this isn’t exactly chopped liver). Still, the stars shine and the supporting cast is more than good enough to carry the film even when it gets off track and meanders through the personal lives of both men. It’s a very good film that wants hard to be a great film, and it comes close many times. It’s an easy recommendation, and I expect it will garner some Academy attention come award time. Even though I have some small nagging problems with the film, it’s certainly worth a look or two.

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