November 3, 2007

REVIEW: American Gangster (B)

Background: Ridley Scott’s (Blade Runner, Gladiator) new film, American Gangster, is based on Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article “The Return of Superfly,” which is in turn based on the true story of Frank Lucas, notorious drug kingpin (and king) of 1970’s Harlem. Both Lucas (played by Denzel Washington - Deja Vu) and his former NJ police rival Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe - 3:10 to Yuma) were consultants during production, helping with accuracy and accents. The messy pre-production of the film took several years and scripts, and at different points involved director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), screenwriter Terry George (Reservation Road), and actors Don Cheadle, Joaquin Phoenix, Ray Liotta, John C. Reilly, and Benicio Del Toro. Of course none of these people ended up working on American Gangster, but Del Toro actually collected a $5 million paycheck before production was shut down the first time. One other interesting piece of trivia - a number of the Thai extras were actually involved in Frank Lucas's real drug-running operation. Must be a statute of limitations for drug-related crimes in Thailand.

Synopsis: Harlem, late 60's. Frank Lucas (Washington) is the successor to local druglord/crimeboss Bumby Johnson. Richie Roberts (Crowe) is a divorced New Jersey cop who is too honest for his line of work. Lucas is committed to monopolizing the booming heroin market in Harlem, and he actually visits the source in Thailand before moving his entire family (including 5 brothers) to Harlem for assistance in the new venture. Before long, junkies all over New York are hooked on his "Blue Magic," and the corrupt NYPD, led by Detective Trupo (Brolin), look the other way while stuffing their pockets. After losing the trust of his fellow officers, Roberts is picked to head a federal taskforce whose only goal is to stop the drug trade at its source. By this time, Lucas has wealth, power, influence, and the reputation as the baddest dude in Harlem. Despite his low profile (quiet suits, simple routines, weekly church-going, etc.), Lucas (and Det. Trupo) eventually attract the attention of Robert and his team. Their surveillance pays off when they learn of one final, massive heroin shipment coming in from Thailand, and a major raid ensues. Lucas is dramatically arrested on his way out of church and forced to either take life in prison or rat out all of his NYPD bedfellows.

I Loved:
+ The production design - great sets, on-location filming
, and a believable 70's look to it all.

I Liked:
+ Denzel Washington's ice-cold performance - better and more believable than his silly turn in Training Day.
+ T.I. - he was good in a limited role and shows as much potential as he did in ATL.
+ The RZA - outacting professionals and showing off a Wu-Tang tattoo.

I Disliked:
- Josh Brolin's exaggerated bullying, Russell Crowe's dull indifference, Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s typical spasticity, and Common's boring coolness.
- Chiwetel Ejiofor being miscast as an African-American again (as in Talk to Me and Inside Man) - he's British and excels in roles where he doesn't have to fake an accent or an attitude, like in Dirty Pretty Things and Children of Men.
- Not seeing images/interviews with the real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts - I know, I know, wait for the DVD. Well I never see DVD's so I'll miss it.

I Hated:
- Nothing, really.

Writing - 9
Acting - 7
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 42/50= 84% = B

Last Word: With all of the mess in getting this made, where was Spike Lee? I have to believe he would have made a better movie, though he may not have extracted better performances from the cast. American Gangster is not a bad movie, it's just not a very likable one. Basically, it's another shoulder-shrugger. Aside from showing that Denzel Washington can legitimately play a ruthless criminal, not much is accomplished. I didn't know anything about Frank Lucas, and still I have to read the original article and look for more information about him and Roberts. The corruption in the story, from the military to the police, is incredible and should have played a larger role. Although it kept my interest, some scenes could have been trimmed, mostly those involving Roberts' family matters. Speaking of Roberts, I have to stick up for Crowe here regarding his accent. I'm not from North Jersey, but I think Crowe probably got closer than the others (Del Toro, Phoenix) who would have played Roberts. He did fine with the accent, but just didn't seem very passionate about what he was doing. Maybe that's the real Roberts, though. American Gangster was the right idea for an old-school gangster movie, but the final product isn't as dark or as revealing as you'd hope for. Or am I just that desensitized by this point?

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