Harlem, 1968. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), driver to recently deceased gangster Bumpy Johnson, hits upon a way of importing huge quantities of uncut heroin into America from a source in South East Asia, making himself into a drug kingpin almost overnight but without being noticed by the authorities in New York, primarily because most of them are responsible for dealing the weaker, more expensive heroin that Lucas and his ''blue magic'' brand of heroin are able to undercut. At the same time, New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) happens across almost a million dollars in unmarked bills and hands it in, leading to him being branded an honest and, therefore, untrustworthy cop. Over the next 6 years, the lives of the two men begin to converge until Roberts' investigations eventually take down Lucas and his entire operation.
I went into American Gangster with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Certainly the list of those involved, both in front of and behind the camera, would be enough to elicit some sort of reaction, uniting as it does two of the finest actors of the last twenty years with Ridley Scott, one of the great creators of mood and ambience. However, ever since Gladiator I've found Russell Crowe to be a very dull actor, never really pushing himself to the sort of heights he achieved with the likes of L.A. Confidential (one of my absolute favourite films) and The Insider. Likewise, Ridley Scott hasn't really done a great film since Gladiator (or so the majority of critics say, I personally think he hasn't made a great film since Thelma and Louise, though Matchstick Men is an under-rated gem) and this film seemed to be one of those films where he goes out of his way to focus on characters to try and convince the world that he is not just a visual stylist, in the process delivering movies that are neither visually arresting or emotionally engaging. No concerns about Denzel, though, since he's great in everything. So, the things that excited me about American Gangster were the exact same things that had me concerned.
In the end, I had nothing to worry about since American Gangster is one of the finest films I've seen this year and easily the best work that those involved have done in some time. Except Denzel, who continues his run as one of the most consistently brilliant and watchable American actors in the world today.
So what, goes right? Firstly, the period setting of the film and attention to detail is really quite brilliant. Harlem of the late 60's/early 70's is wonderfully recreated, giving a real sense of a place and a people being neglected by white America and, in doing so, establishes the context within which Frank Lucas was able to accrue a huge amount of wealth and power in a relatively short amount of time with almost no one taking any notice of him. What is particularly nice about the attention to detail present in pretty much every aspect of the film, from the use of contemporary music in the background to establishing that the women employed to handle heroin for Lucas had to work naked to ensure they didn't steal anything, creates a world that feels completely real and authentic. Scott's slick, unfussy camerawork also helps to create this sense of time and place, owing a huge debt as it does to seminal pieces of 70's cinema such as Serpico and, especially, the French Connection, which is overtly referenced numerous times throughout the film.
Of course, the period trappings and attention to detail would all just be exquisite window dressing if the performances weren't up to scratch. Fortunately, pretty much everyone involved in the film is on top form. Russell Crowe delivers some of his best work in years as Richie Roberts, imbuing the character with a loneliness and slight creepiness that hasn't been present in any of his performances of late. The undisputed star of the film, though, is Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas. The film makes no qualms about showing what a violent many Lucas was, within the opening minute of the film he is shown setting a man on fire then shooting him repeatedly, but it also portrays him as a man who loved his mother, visited the grave of his mentor every week and was a charming, affable man. It's this basic juxtaposition of the violent criminal with the loving family man, as well as the way in which the film contrasts and compares the lives of Ritchie and Lucas, that forms the basic dramatic tension of the piece.
Probably the greatest strength of the film is that it unfurls gradually; it makes full use of its 157 minute running time and isn't in a hurry to get to the final confrontation between the two main characters. The first hour of the film is solely dedicated to establishing the characters of Lucas and Ritchie, the two worlds which they inhabit, and characters and elements are introduced fairly early on that don't pay off until much later. It may initially seem like the film is a tangential mess, introducing characters like a corrupt New York cop (Josh Brolin, just one of the great supporting players) who initially don't seem to be all that important or pertinent to the plot, but it is to the great credit of Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian that many of these tangents are pulled together by the end. The only exception being a subplot about Ritchie's ex-wife seeking custody of their child, which doesn't really go anywhere and is the only sour note in an otherwise meticulously constructed story.
American Gangster is an epic, sprawling and thrilling crime drama. The story unfolds at a natural, languid pace that perfectly suits the length of time covered in the film and allows for the various plot strands to be established, developed and resolved. The performances are excellent, the direction is perfectly suited and even if doesn't offer anything new to the crime saga genre it is still a flawlessly executed crime film put together by an incredibly talented team. Now, let's hope that Scott doesn't see fit to tinker with this one and release a 5-disc version in 25 years time, this version is pretty much perfect as is.