American Gangster

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american gangsterThe studios pulled all the stops for this American Gangster (not to be confused with the Dennis Farina movie from 15 years earlier). This American Gangster had a huge budget, Ridley Scott to director, with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as the leads. They certainly think this is going to be an epic gangster picture that runs away with some Oscars. Well, they’re wrong. Don’t worry, you’ll be entertained. And don’t feel bad for the studio, they’ll make all their money back at the box office. People love the gangster flicks, and this is one based on a real person – Frank Lucas.

It’s funny that rappers RZA, Common, and T.I. Harris have roles in it, because every rapper I’ve ever seen talk movies in an interview, says their favorite movie is Scarface. When they show their houses on the MTV show Cribs, they always have a framed Scarface poster; and just like Scarface, this movie is far from a great picture, and also glorifies the bad guys.

Heroin gets shipped from Vietnam to Harlem, and Lucas (Denzel Washington) is big time in distributing. There are good cops, but it seems, many more bad cops. This can be helpful to Lucas.

It was interesting to show the two different characters, and how they do their jobs (the cop and the criminal). It was fun to see New York recreated for ‘70s.

We see Lucas start out as a driver and right-hand man to a drug kingpin named Bumpy Johnson. Perfect name of a Mississippi Delta bluesman, or a drug kingpin in the ‘60s. When he dies, Lucas just sort of takes over and cuts out the middlemen, getting the dope straight from the source in Vietnam. The war in Vietnam was going on, but who would think to check the coffins of the returning soldiers (I still need to find out if that’s really how he did it). By cutting out the middlemen, Lucas could also cut the prices – and have a stronger product. The only problem was, people often overdosed. There were times that I wondered why we should like a guy just because he passes out turkeys to the poor on Thanksgiving, yet he’s turning around and killing them with his product. I guess the town folk feel cops and corporations are killing them, but without the turkeys. Whatever.

Crowe is a Jewish detective, who has problems at home. He cheats on his wife, loses his kid in a custody battle, but he’s an honest cop. He even gets ridiculed by everyone for returning a million dollars in unmarked bills that he got out of a car he was staking out. Since all the other cops are dirty, they don’t trust a guy that would return money. Crowe is put in charge of a Special Investigative Unit and hand picks a crew he can trust. It’s at this point that I wondered…how many of these types of movies have we seen? It may be a real unique American story, but it’s told in a very clichéd way, that brings nothing new to the table.

I really despised the Lucas character, and wonder if others watching it would. Perhaps they liked the fact that he was “sticking it to the man”?

He is violent. In one scene, he’s in a diner enjoying breakfast and talking, and he sees a low-level thug. He picks up his gun, shoots the guy at point blank range, and returns to finish his coffee. Nobody seems to bat an eye.

He puts his family at risk, especially a nephew that might have a career as a pro baseball player.

One of the things we loved about Al Pacino in Scarface (a movie that doesn’t even make my Top 10 of gangster flicks), is the fact that he brought humor to the role. There’s none of that with the Lucas character.

His mother is played by Ruby Dee, and I enjoyed their scenes together. There’s always something interesting about how various characters act when in the presence of mom.

I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked Gladiator – the last time Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe teamed up. Gladiator was 15 minutes longer than this movie, but this movie felt a lot longer. At 2 hours and 37 minutes, I wish Scott would’ve edited a bit more and given us a stronger picture.

I’m giving this a C-.