CAPSULE: At first the film AMERICAN GANGSTER seems like an exciting crime film actually based on true events. Look again and it is several familiar crime film plots woven together into a story that is not a lot like the article on which it was based. Denzel Washington is magnetic, though Russell Crowe does not quite keep pace. This is an entertaining gangster film, though little more. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
AMERICAN GANGSTER is a pretty good gangster film supposedly based on true events. This film chronicles the career of Frank Lucas, once the heroin baron of Harlem. It is an enjoyable film to watch and even to see how it resonates with some fictional and very familiar gangster films. I came out of the film fairly positive on it until I found the article on which it is based, "The Return of Superfly", which appeared in "New York" magazine in August 7, 2000 (see link below). I found most of what was on the screen was not actually in the article. It is still possible that events might have happened as occurred, but given director Ridley Scott's record of historical inaccuracy, I strongly suspect that is not the case. In fact much of the resonance with familiar crime films was probably intentional. Stephen Zaillian, who wrote SCHINDLER'S LIST, had gone downhill a little.
AMERICAN GANGSTER tells of the rise and the fall of gangster and drug baron Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington). His career and his relationship to his family could have been borrowed from the film SCARFACE (actually either version of SCARFACE). He eventually runs afoul of a special handpicked law enforcement team, chosen to be incorruptible and (dare I say it?) untouchable. That team is run by the hard-nosed cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a totally honest cop who equally hates gangsters and cops on the take. Add a little GOODFELLAS, FRENCH CONNECTION, and even some CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and you have AMERICAN GANGSTER.
In New York City organized crime Italian-Americans mostly run the shop. Frank Lucas is just a driver for gangster Bumpy Johnson. Bumpy trusts his driver and philosophizes on how to be successful and make real money in the drug business. He might not have been so open had he known how closely Frank was listening. Bumpy dies of natural causes and Frank decides to put Bumpy's strategy to the test. He discovers that even Bumpy probably did not know how right he was. Frank quickly finds out that with Bumpy's wisdom he is making lots of money and holding on to it. And he has ambitions to make even more.
Meanwhile Richie, a pugnacious cop proves he is incredibly honest, catches the right eye, and is invited to form a special unit to combat drug dealing in New Jersey. He does not live the fancy life that Frank does, but he is doing what he wants to be doing. But he does use his chance to put together a really good team to go after the drug trade. AMERICAN GANGSTER tells both stories. And with a running time of 157 minutes it has time to develop each.
Ridley Scott knows how to direct an entertaining film. Nobody questions that. He has been doing that for about thirty years now. However, it is a mistake to assume that his films like GLADIATOR and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN bear more than a passing resemblance to actual history. Similarly it would be a mistake to assume that AMERICAN GANGSTER gets its facts right about gangland history. Some facts he gets right and some he gets wrong.
We have heard a lot in films about anti-heroes, heroes with serious flaws. In a lot of ways Frank is something we do not see as much outside of Damon Runyon stories. He is an anti-villain. He is a drug dealer, enslaving some people and killing other with his product. But he has his own code of ethics. In a curious way he cherishes his customers, trying to ensure that they really get the best deal possible on heroin. He protects the integrity of his brand name. He is very free with unselfish and intelligent advice to others on how to succeed and what are the pitfalls of gangster life. He got an education from Bumpy Johnson and he feels obliged to pass on the benefit of his learning. In his own way he is a good-guy-bad-guy. Even with Denzel Washington playing a criminal, he is still playing a straight arrow.
There is more to enjoy than to admire in the filmcraft of AMERICAN GANGSTER. This is an entertaining compilation of retread touches from good gangster films. I give it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0765429/
Article in "New York" magazine that inspired the film: http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/people/features/3649/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper