Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ridley Scott and Denzel Washington turn their attention to the gangster film in American Gangster, a neatly crafted epic based on historical fact and featuring glowing star turns from its twin leading men. Washington's marvelously self-possessed gang leader Frank Lucas is almost too good to be true, a Sidney Poitier of the Harlem heroin racket. Opposing him is an honest cop who must buck both the streets and his own corrupt police establishment. The movie successfully recounts a number of core gangster issues -- the rags-to-riches yearnings of a racial underclass, the climb to the top of the heap and the struggle to stay there. Director Scott puts a polish on familiar situations and themes as we search for the flaw that will bring down the nearly perfect Frank Lucas.
When Harlem dope kingpin Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) passes away, the underworld underestimates his self-effacing personal assistant Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Bumpy bought his drugs from the Mafia, but Frank goes straight to the source in Cambodia and floods Harlem with cheap 'Blue Magic' heroin at bargain prices. He moves his North Carolina relatives to an upscale mansion, sets his brothers up in cover businesses, and takes back Bumpy's domain with a minimum of violence. Meanwhile, Detective Richie Roberts' family falls apart as he concentrates on police work and earning his law degree. With half the New York force on the take, the honest Roberts is tapped to head a secret New Jersey-based federal crime task force. Already a pariah for turning in millions of dollars of 'found' mob money, Richie comes up against the arrogant, corrupt NYPD detective Trupo (Josh Brolin). Unfortunately, Frank Lucas is so unostentatious, Richie's investigators have difficulty even finding out who he is.
American Gangster mounts its classic gangland themes in grand style. The true-life gangster fantasy is the American Success Story, and although Frank Lucas is far more sophisticated than Scarface's Tony Camonte or Little Caesar's Enrico Bandello, he goes through a similar career arc. Material success is the dream of the underclass, and we watch Frank as he dresses himself, buys an upscale apartment, attends gala celebrity events and weds a trophy wife. Like many classic gangsters, Frank honors his mother and buys her a huge country house.
Frank's Rise & Fall is particularly interesting because he's a black gangster with a plan. As a lieutenant of the legendary Bumpy Johnson, Frank learned to play Robin Hood to his Harlem neighborhood, even as he filled it with dope and terrorized intruders. Frank's ability to play it cool allows him to snooker the Mob and sell his wares almost invisibly -- his control of the streets is such that he can execute a competitor in broad daylight with impunity.
Frank is as much of a family man as the Mafia Dons he learned from. He holds his extended family close, promoting one nephew as a big league ball player and keeping his less disciplined brothers in line. Even more important to Frank than his Puerto Rican wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) is Frank's mother (Ruby Dee). Unlike the helpless or clueless mothers of classic films, Mama Lucas has the authority to get Frank to sit down and listen to her, even when both of them know he won't follow her advice.
American Gangster has the scope and running time to take on the 'crusading cop' subgenre as well. Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts is a do-gooder in a corrupt police force but he doesn't suffer quite as much as Frank Serpico or the luckless hero of Prince of the City. Roberts' unyielding honesty is unusual for a modern crime film, and cements the conclusion that American Gangster is at heart a classic genre entry.
Russell Crowe's smart and personable cop is a shoo-in for audience interest, but American Gangster must force itself to label Washington's Frank Lucas as a bad man. Even though Frank burns a man alive in the very first scene, we rarely see him do anything violent, and then only to 'deserving' individuals. His temper shows only a couple of times, as when he angrily clears his Manhattan penthouse apartment after one of his brothers shoots a man. Franks simmers and steams when his empire starts to crumble, but he never loses his self-control. Harried by both the Mafia and Detective Trupo, Frank is finally brought down by events he cannot predict. Roberts forces one of Frank's brothers to inform. The Vietnam War ends, cutting off his supply of pure heroin. Frank's big mistake is to draw attention to himself by attending a high-profile prizefight in ostentatious furs. When Frank sits in better seats than the Mafia chieftain (Armand Assante), Richie Roberts knows he's found his man.
The entertaining American Gangster introduces some novel content. Frank treks into the Cambodian jungle to personally barter with one of Chiang Kai-shek's warlord generals ... the confusion of the Vietnam War enables 'gangsters' of every stripe to operate in the margins. 1 The workers in Frank's heroin processing plant wear no clothing, so they can't steal the product. New York cops on the take behave as if they were another gang on the streets, using threats and violence to get their way; no wonder the underclass lost its faith in law and order. Frank Lucas' condemnation of the showy 'superfly' lifestyle adopted by some of his underlings, like club owner Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) is almost funny. Frank bests the Mafia by internalizing a button-down work ethic, a straight-arrow appearance and a standard-English vocabulary.
Ridley Scott punctuates the film with vibrant visuals, while Steve Zaillian's script marks the passage of time with TV coverage of the Vietnam War and heavyweight boxing promotions. The film occasionally falls back on old patterns, especially stylistic borrowings from The Godfather. Montages contrast Frank's riches with sordid drug deaths, and more than one montage shows Frank in Church listening to music that carries over violent scenes playing out simultaneously at other locations, as in The Godfather's celebrated montage that inter-cuts a baptism with a mass rubout. Richie Roberts finally corners Frank Lucas on a set of church steps, in an echo of gangster classics like The Roaring Twenties.
Universal's 3-Disc Collector's Edition of American Gangster seeks to win the DVD sales race by inventing even classier packaging. The 3 discs come in a shiny black holder-folder held inside a sturdy black card box suitable for carrying a Bible. Character quotes are printed on the inside cover, treating the film as if it were already a timeless classic. A slickly produced booklet extols the film's artistic virtues.
Disc one contains the 158-minute theatrical cut, which is accompanied by a director/screenwriter commentary. A sampling of the track showed Scott and Zaillian mostly describing the film we were seeing, with added historical comments; it's slow going. On the same disc is the longer 3-hour unrated extended version. It moves just as fast as the first cut and includes many interesting additions, including an elaborate new ending that ponders Frank Lucas wondering how he will adapt to the hip-hop 1990s, when the streets of Harlem are no longer up for grabs.
Discs two and three exhaust our interest in the movie with a host of lengthy extras, some more relevant than others. The two deleted scenes are a less-impressive alternate opening and Frank and Eva's wedding scene. The main making-of docu is called Fallen Empire. It explains the factual basis of the story, and also shows the real Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas as active participants in its production. Nobody seems to care, but it still seems wrong to reward murderer and drug lord Lucas with this kind of acceptance and legitimacy, even if he's 'paid his debt to society'. An extra named Case Files has three separate items. From preproduction is a script meeting done over a speakerphone. The second shows Ridley Scott learning about heroin reagent testing from a police specialist. A more conventional third piece covers the elaborate filming of the final 'big bust' in an old housing block on Governor's Island. Also present are a Dateline NBC show and a BET special on, what else, the making of American Gangster.
Two music videos are added to the stack, including Jay-Z's Blue Magic. Hip-Hop Infusion featuring Common and T.I. is another music-oriented extra. A trailer is included as well. Finally, the third disc contains a downloadable digital copy of the film for viewing, on PCs only. It's the first time I've seen a download as an extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
American Gangster rates:
Sound: Excellent DD 5.1
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 19, 2008
1. Which provides the answer to the musical question, "War, what is it good for?" : Making Money. Gangsters, rogue states, warlords and secret government agencies are the first in line to take advantage of the confusion, distraction and unaccountability of War.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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