Sunday, February 17, 2008

Movie review: American Gangster

By Rick Morris

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a film as murky and as complicated as the Harlem drug-dealing scene of the '60s and '70s that it depicts. Released on DVD this Tuesday, GANGSTER is a gritty, entertaining ride that is not always what it purports to be, much like its antihero, heroin pusher Frank Lucas (portrayed by Denzel Washington). You can read a synopsis of the plot, as well as details about how it came to fruition here.

I referred to him as an antihero rather than a villain deliberately, because the movie does adopt a tone that seems almost a tad admiring of his admittedly brilliant dealings. Director Ridley Scott seems to take pains to contrast Lucas' mostly-solid family life with the failings that his nemesis, cop Richie Roberts (played by Russell Crowe), had as a husband and father. A troubling underlying moral equivalence is implied through the following question: sure, Lucas is reining down destruction on society through his poison, but who is better to his family? I wasn't a fan of that aspect of the movie, particularly in light of the casual degradation of the honor of our deceased military heroes that Lucas used as a vital cog in his evil engine. It's interesting also that Washington only agreed to take the part when he came to believe that it portrayed Lucas getting what he deserved in the end -- but Lucas ended up getting out of jail for a relative pittance in terms of sentencing guidelines and he even ended up with a most unlikely defender in the end (no spoilers here!). So I guess I'd have to agree to disagree with Mr. Washington about any aspects of Lucas' glorification being balanced out in the end.

In a nutshell, the screenplay involves Lucas taking over an urban crime operation and hitting upon an idea to import pure heroin, with no Mafia middlemen, from Southeast Asia via the United States military during the Vietnam War. The unlikely nature of what Lucas was able to accomplish, if we are able to view it from a pure business standpoint, was breathtaking and it allowed him to remain under the radar for a long period of time as law enforcement agencies tried in vain to discover the source behind the drug epidemic's explosion. In a strange irony, he found himself having some adversaries in common with Richards, as the same dirty cops stealing and redealing drugs were a threat to both men. Richards' motivation for taking down Lucas stemmed largely from losing his partner to heroin addiction, which I must say does make a final plot development very unlikely -- but I can't fault the writers for this as they are reflecting what actually happened and to leave it out would be to gain clarity for the viewer at the expense of accuracy.

The characters do not interact for much of the movie, as the camera follows them in completely separate universes. Indeed, each is unaware of the other's very existence for much of the time, which serves to build the anticipation greatly as the movie progresses through a series of extraordinary scenes.

While I question the somewhat nonjudgmental nature of AMERICAN GANGSTER in the way that it tried too hard to balance the portrayal of Lucas with a dubious positive side of the ledger, I was greatly entertained by it. If you can keep the part of your brain that cares about right and wrong from screaming at you while you are watching it, you too will enjoy the ride and you should view it when it is released on DVD this Tuesday.

Here's the film's trailer:

1 comment:

Patrick Roberts said...

American Gangster reminded me yet again what a versatile actor Russel Crowe is… plus pretty much anything directed by Ridley Scott is gonna be good.