Film: American Gangster

Nov 6, 2007 at 6:49 pm

American Gangster      3 stars
Starring Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Josh Brolin, Common and Ted Levine. Directed by Ridley Scott. Released by Universal Pictures. Rated R; 2:37.

What does one mean when speaking of “stylized” violence? Truthfully, any on-screen violence, no matter how realistic or “gritty” its depiction, is, by definition, stylized. To the extent that some viewers have problems with cinematic violence, the determinant is not stylization but glamorization. In this context, American film and American gangsterism are practically identical. Perhaps that is the true meta-theme of this garish melodrama, and perhaps that is why it begins with a scene of startling violence. If so, the point may be lost. Most of the folks at a recent screening seemed to revel in the bloodletting purely for its own sake.

    It is only too perfect that this film was directed by the gentleman British storyteller Ridley Scott. What, one might ask, can a Brit bring to a tale of Harlem heroin traffic? Realism, though, is not the point here; impact is. Scott is a master at impact. A sometime Hitchcock wannabe (“Hannibal”) and sometime propagandist (the odious “Black Hawk Down”), he has never met a genre he couldn't cannibalize. His Sergio Leone homage (read: theft) “Gladiator” solidified his bankability, but artistically his high water mark came way back when he made “Blade Runner” (now available in its 114th new “Director’s Cut”), and it’s unlikely he will hit that height again, even assuming he continues to select superior source material.

    Here Scott takes on the nearly mythical story of 1970s junk kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). The sources are novelist Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote the book “Wiseguy,” which later became Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”) and veteran screenwriter Steven Zaillian. As written by these men, Lucas becomes a criminal archetype, a classic hybrid of “Scarface” and Horatio Alger. Frank’s organization (including plenty of relatives played by T.I., Common, etc.) blankets the New York area with high quality, inexpensive heroin that he eventually begins importing directly from Asia, thus removing the mafia from their traditional middleman role.

Frank’s people are fiercely loyal, and he imposes upon them a discipline to which he himself also adheres. As Teddy Franklin might say, “Frank never does anything in the presence of unreliable people who might turn out to be witnesses for the prosecution.”

    That prosecution takes the form of detective Richie Roberts and his partner (Russell Crowe and the great RZA). Roberts is a driven cop, scrupulously honest but with a sloppy personal life (as per the cinematic cliché). He may be seen as Ahab, with Frank as his great, black whale. Crowe does a more than solid job even if his Noo Yawk accent is often tone deaf. Richie and Frank lead nearly parallel lives but meet only rarely on screen.

Their eventual confrontation is so inevitable that it becomes the film’s centrifugal force. In this respect, it rather resembles Michael Mann’s “Heat” wherein De Niro and Pacino finally square off in front of the camera. In this instance, Denzel’s megawattage and the inherent dark appeal of his character distinctly outshine Crowe. How often does anyone outshine Russell Crowe?

    Like all good gangster films, this is about the nature of crime, loyalty, morality, honor and especially family. The good/evil switcheroo is a standard plot device nowadays, but “American Gangster” harkens back to late-’70s/early-’80s films like “Prince of the City,” when the concept of moral relativity was brand new.