American Gangster


American Gangster

I find it difficult to evaluate the movie American Gangster without some kind of compare and contrast to 2001’s Blow, which I also felt compelled to say a few words about.

Both are period films about drug smugglers, considered by some to be innovators during their time. Both are based on real-life stories. Both sport top-notch actors in some of the worst outfits ever retro-designed from a 1970’s JCPenny catalog.

Yet, one of these movies gets the highest rating I’ve ever issued for a film on this site, and the other gets the lowest.

And I think it all has to do with perspective. Where Blow failed at providing anything but a tunnel vision portrayal of a sophomoric exploiter-cum-big-time-player, American Gangster succeeds at telling an epic rise-and-fall story, all the while examining each side with intelligence–from the hooked mothers overdosing in front of their children, to the crooked cops profiting off of prohibition’s forced demand.

This movie bleeds perspective at just about every turn.

It’s a testament to director Ridley Scott’s experience that proper restraint was used in telling gangster Frank Lucas‘s unique story. After reading The Return of Superfly, a 2001 interview with the ex-con, which the movie was largely based upon, it’s apparent that more could have been told to provide Frank’s character with sympathetic overtones. Instead, the filmmakers pinpoint their focus towards an unrelenting two-sided coin portrayed on one side by Denzel Washington as Frank, and Russel Crowe as Detective Richie Roberts.

It’s a cat and mouse story between two characters representing good and evil, but as obvious as this is, both possess qualities that break down the polarization between them. While bad guy Lucas can be at times charming and sincere, Detective Richie is hardly irreproachable in private. He regularly womanizes and struggles with being a father.

The ethical rift between them becomes even more tense as details of their social status are compared, making the most pivotal scene in the movie all the more poetic. Set against the backdrop of a historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, a foreshadowing is cleverly suggested as the stakes at each side grow higher and higher.

Two sides will clash. But only one will win.

Power. Corruption. Greed. Class. Race. So much is explored and executed so flawlessly that I think Ridley Scott may have one of the best movies of his career on his hands.

As for that other movie, it just goes to show that anyone can hustle an audience with a real-life story using a few cheap dramatic devices. But only the truly great can make a story as gripping and thought provoking as American Gangster.