American Gangster

  • 2007-10-24
  • by Tim Ochser

RAGS TO RAMPAGE: "American Gangster" tells the story of one man's brutal rise within the world of organized crime.

 Director: Ridley Scott

After the squeamishly bad romantic comedy "A Good Year," director Ridley Scott ventures into new territory once again with "American Gangster." As the irritatingly trite title suggests, the movie is all about an American gangster, much like the movie "American Ninja" was all about an American ninja.

The gangster in question is Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a principled but merciless hood who kills and plots his way to the top of the world of organized crime from his humble Harlem roots in the 1960s.
The "American" part of the title is no doubt intended to be ironic for Lucas is a black gangster in an exclusively white gangster world. His brutal rise to fame and fortune is supposed to serve as some sort of parallel to the civil rights movement which is in full, "I have a dream" swing. But unfortunately Lucas's dream is just the duller than dull American Dream of gettin' rich or dyin' tryin', to paraphrase a more recent sort of American gangsta.
Lucas makes his fortune by importing top quality heroin from Asia into the U.S.A. by using U.S. military planes. The Vietnam War is also in full swing and Lucas keeps his business running smoothly by bribing everyone from military customs to local detectives.

But when Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is appointed to head up a new narcotics division, the whole slick operation is thrown into jeopardy. Lucas tries to bribe Roberts but to no avail. Then he tries to intimidate him but still to no avail. This is because Russell Crowe's character is a gladiatorial sort of guy who actually does what he's paid to do, which is uphold the law.
"American Gangster" tries its best to be epic in the tradition of "Once Upon a Time in America" or "Goodfellas" but it's a decidedly insubstantial film despite endless close-up shots of Denzel Washington looking moody and troubled and Russell Crowe looking unshaven and earnest.

Ridley Scott is an extremely gifted storyteller and he tells this story about as well as it could be told. The problem is it's all rather pointless. The movie is a string of cliches from start to finish, ranging from the evils of heroin (cue a montage of comatose mothers with screaming babies) to the trappings of wealth (Lucas shoots clay pigeons with a wealthy Italian mafia head). But worst of all is the adjectival use of the word "American" preceding "Gangster." It goes much better with ninja.

Opens in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Nov. 2.

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