A year after Martin Scorsese brought us his Oscar-winning The Departed, another gangster movie shot by an acclaimed director also arrived on the big screen. Yet Ridley Scott’s American Gangster seemed to be overlooked in the wake of the star studded Scorsese flick with a thumping soundtrack and clever camerawork.
Scott once again teams up with Russell Crowe, who plays Richie Roberts, a New York detective trying to foil an influx of heroine into the city during the Vietnam War. At the helm of this dealing is Denzel Washington as drug lord Frank Lucas, who is getting his supplies from the war-zone via a contact which puts the credibility of the US military in major peril.
Needless to say is it a far cry from the director’s usual swords-and-sandals epic, but it works. The Gladiator duo are every bit as comfortable working in the back streets of Harlem as they were in a CGI Coliseum; and that, I believe, is what they call versatility.
Set at a leisurely pace that allows what initially seems to be a complex plot fall neatly into place, at the same time it moves quickly enough to keep the viewer engaged. Yes, there are the mandatory family feud scenes, but in Lucas’ case at least, they are integral to his business.
Washington is on top form as the ruthless, extravagant, yet still family-oriented Lucas, whose anger was as variable as the weather, and retribution as subtle as being hit on the head by a Steinway dropped from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.
Although Crowe once again gave an understatedly intense performance, I spent most of the time when he was on screen trying to place his seemingly unplaceable accent. I settled on Boston as early as possible in order to enjoy the rest of the film.
Scott captures the character of the time exquisitely. Not simply through the clothes and household gadgets, but in the way he makes the eyesore blocks of Harlem look tragically beautiful. The big, black cars prowl along the avenues after dark, taxiing Lucas and his girlfriend to a Mohammed Ali boxing match, or to a private nightclub where he is met by the rest of the drug empire’s glitterati.
Based on a true story, American Gangster touches on contentious issues of race and hypocrisy, and explores the corruption which is not solely confined to the criminals.