Directed by: Ridley Scott
Premise: The true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a drug dealer who ruled over the Harlem heroin trade in the 1960s and 70s. A police detective (Russell Crowe) fights corruption in his department and works to bring Lucas’ empire down.
What Works: Director Ridley Scott is known for taking established genres and turning the conventions around a bit and American Gangster is no exception. In this film he takes the gangster film and toys with the always-tenuous lines between cop and criminal and complicates them further. The story casts Denzel Washington as an anti-hero, and he is terrific in the role, but the film portrays him as a man of integrity and ingenuity while never letting the audience forget that he is also a murderer, both directly and by proxy. Something American Gangster does that separates it from other crime films is to show the toll of the heroin trade on the users. The film does not dwell on it, but every once in awhile reminds the audience of the destructiveness of Lucas’ endeavors. That keeps his status as a hero in check and expands on the themes of supply and demand that permeate this film and the drug genre in general. American Gangster is also able to present the corruption of the police officers and their more unscrupulous methods as the true villain of the film. This expands on how the cop-criminal theme has been done in other crime pictures by at once bleeding the line between them while also keeping the story coherent.
What Doesn’t: The very end of American Gangster derails the film a bit, taking it in a different direction that is sudden and abrupt. The picture also runs a little long; it could be about fifteen minutes shorter by cutting down on some of the extraneous material involving Lucas’ family which is not as effective as it could be.
Bottom Line: American Gangster is no Godfather or Scarface but it is well done and adds some new twists on the gangster film. The performances in the film are very strong, namely Washington, who provides one of the most compelling gangster figures in the genre.
Episode: #165 (November 4, 2007)