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I’ve been hearing that American Gangster is just your run-of-the-mill cop vs. robber flick, again showing Ridley Scott’s prevailing mediocrity. Hey, I love the cast and I find Scott almost as intriguing as his brother, so I was all for it. Generic gangsters with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe should still be better than most. However, while finding it to be unoriginal, I didn’t see it as a crime film. Instead it was one of my least favorite genres, the biopic. We are shown Frank Lucas go from driver of Harlem’s bigshot to king of the drug world and Richie Roberts from beat cop/law student to drug investigator head/prosecuting lawyer. Rather than give us all conflict, we get sequence after sequence of how these two got where they get. Not only that, but I couldn’t tell you at the end who was the good guy and who the bad. Both men are glorified and shown to have enemies that they vault over because of character, whether moral or not. They both beat the odds, and honestly, I liked Denzel’s Lucas as a person more than Crowe’s Roberts.

There is just too much going on here. How many times do we need to see Robert’s boyscout mentality and Lucas’ calm demeanor and non-flashy appearance? Both men do what they should to be successful in their field, only while Crowe continuously gets punished for it in life—but not career per se—Washington just gets richer. Who should we strive to be then? Like the young man with a 95 mph fastball, who gives up his gravy train, says, “I want to be like you Uncle Frank.” You don’t see Robert’s son looking up to dad, instead he seems to not even know he exists, pretty much because he doesn’t to him.

I don’t want to slight the story though. This is a very intriguing premise, how a black man subverts the middleman, like local electronic stores, to buy his drugs from the source in Bangkok. This no name does what the Italians never could, sell superior product for half the price, and stay almost completely under the radar. Whether the expensive chinchilla coat from his wife truly was the cause of him appearing on enemy lists or not—it is a bit convenient—it was bound to happen sometime. Although, keeping a low profile and staying conservative is a novel idea that you’d think more criminals would want to adopt. The Frank Lucas Story works, but I think it would truly succeed as its own tale. Just show us his life, or maybe just his heyday as a ruthless criminal, not as a kid from the streets that works hard and runs his city. Glorifying crime should not be what Hollywood wants to do.

While the Lucas tale was good, the Roberts one was great. Now, the Richie Roberts Story is something I would definitely watch. Here is a guy that is married to his job and estranged from his wife and kid. Someone who finds a million dollars of drug money and doesn’t take a penny; will not cover for his partner or friends if they do something illegal; and who will stop at nothing to actually put bad men behind bars. Even more unbelievable is how he not only takes down the most dangerous criminal in New York, but he also prosecutes him in court, getting him to cooperate in taking down corrupt cops. Then, the craziest revelation of all, he becomes Lucas’ defense attorney and gets his term shortened by fifty years. It is too bad that rather than give two hour-and-a-half films on each guy separately, we get a bloated three hour parallel tale of the two at once. I only stayed invested in anticipation to finally see these two powerhouses onscreen together.

In that regard, Washington and Crowe deliver the goods like usual. Supporting them, however, is a big time cast of names. I can’t believe all the people they got to be involved here with bit parts. Ejiofor, Hawkes, Brolin, Gugino, Common, Ortiz, Gooding Jr., Assante, and more vault the story to a higher level through their professionalism. Even RZA has a nice turn, but did we need the money shot of his tattooed name on his shoulder? Come on, cover that up, it was just stupid. I really hope John Ortiz will continue to get work because like in Miami Vice, he makes a small role his own.

So, in the end, as with most biopics, this one just shows too much. It lulled me into a sense of cruise control, just watching and watching, waiting for something special to happen. There are moments, like the final shootout that works nicely and a good exchange at the end between Lucas and his mother, but they are few and very far between. Only in America can a man without conscience, a murderer and druglord, blow-in a few corrupt cops and skate out of jail time to once again roam the streets. I understand the utilitarianism of it all and that he might be a marked man now, but honestly, he turned in police officers not gang leaders. There won’t be any hits put on his head; he’ll be able to retire with no problem. Not to mention, I’m sure, that probably no ramifications were experienced by the military and their involvement in the smuggling of contraband into the country. It’s like this all happened and we learned nothing from it.

American Gangster 6/10

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photography:
[1] Common, Idris Elba, Denzel Washington, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Malcolm Goodwin in American Gangster – 2007
[2] Russell Crowe star as Detective Richie Roberts in American Gangster.

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