Nobody used to notice Frank Lucas, the quiet driver to one of the inner city's leading black crime bosses. But when his boss suddenly dies, Frank exploits the opening in the power structure to build his own empire and create his own version of the American Dream. Through ingenuity and a strict business ethic, he comes to rule the...
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Nobody used to notice Frank Lucas, the quiet driver to one of the inner city's leading black crime bosses. But when his boss suddenly dies, Frank exploits the opening in the power structure to build his own empire and create his own version of the American Dream. Through ingenuity and a strict business ethic, he comes to rule the inner-city drug trade, flooding the streets with a purer product at a better price. Lucas outplays all of the leading crime syndicates and becomes not only one of the city's mainline corrupters, but part of its circle of legit civic superstars. Richie Roberts is an outcast cop close enough to the streets to feel a shift of control in the drug underworld. Roberts believes someone is climbing the rungs above the known Mafia families and starts to suspect that a black power player has come from nowhere to dominate the scene. Both Lucas and Roberts share a rigorous ethical code that sets them apart from their own colleagues, making them lone figures on opposite sides of the law. The destinies of these two men will become intertwined as they approach a confrontation where only one of them can come out on top.
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We've seen American Gangster's roots plenty—as recently as The Departed and as far back as Scarface—but between its formidable acting duo and story in need of retelling, there's plenty here to intrigue.
Set in late-'60s/early-'70s Harlem, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a relative nobody, an underling driver existing well beneath his gangster mentor Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). But when Bumpy dies, that all changes. Likewise, street cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is small-time, best known for having turned over a boatload of found cash out of the goodness of his heart. But in a way, his status also begins to ascend around the time of Bumpy's death. And so, Lucas and Roberts, both quickly rising through the ranks of their respective law-breaking and abiding hierarchies, are on a collision course—each without the knowledge the other even existed. Frank doesn't waste any time asserting himself once Bumpy dies, and he will go on to become the only kind of drug peddler with a shot at staying power: opportunistic, ruthless and not one to consume his own product. Lucas' get-rich-quick scheme of importing Vietnamese heroin via U.S. soldiers' caskets eliminates the middleman and nets him millions. But as is always the case, one lapse in vigilance puts him at risk, and Roberts is there waiting.
Behold, moviegoers, the mother lode of acting duos—only we saw Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe together on screen 12 years ago in Virtuosity. Oh well. Truth be told, the short time in which they share scenes has nothing on its buildup thereof, but these two are a marvel in their own separate arcs. Denzel is the gaudier of them, relishing his Scarface-sized villain even more than he did Alonzo in Training Day. It's a top-notch performance to add to a career full of them, and there are a plethora of scenes from which to choose for his Oscar reel. Crowe, meanwhile, isn't quite as riveting as he was a few months ago in 3:10 to Yuma, but that's partly because cinematic good guys always finish second in terms of watchability. And when the climactic confrontation nears, Crowe dials up the tension a few notches. The marquee names, though, are but the tip of the iceberg in this star-studded affair, which also boasts the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor (who recently co-starred with Denzel in Inside Man), Cuba Gooding Jr., Common, Carla Gugino, RZA, John Hawkes, Ted Levine and the legendary Ruby Dee. But Gangster's (no longer hidden) gem is Josh Brolin, currently enjoying a major resurgence. With apologies to Denzel, Brolin's deliciously hateful, corrupt cop might be the best performance here.
Ridley Scott--semi-legendary for his sci-fi (Alien, Blade Runner), action (Gladiator) and feminism (Thelma and Louise)--is not the first director who would come to mind for a gritty, talky, urban period drama, but he displays unforeseen versatility with Gangster. Nothing feels inauthentic here, from the look of Vietnam-era New York City and its inhabitants to the documentary-style feel of the sparse action, and it's a surprisingly restrained effort from Scott that allows for such realism. Other filmmakers might've been tempted to deflect Gangster into shoot-'em-up territory, with, say, an action-centric take on the size of villainry possessed by Lucas, but Scott does well in staying true to what this story is, and is not, about. And while there's nothing especially groundbreaking or unforgettable about his effort, Scott keeps the two and a half hours pretty compelling. Gangster's unsung hero, however, is its real subject, Lucas, and his true story, even more so than the one adapted by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) from Marc Jacobson's New York Times article. It's a fascinating tale of everything that makes for good movies—race, class, money, drugs, corruption—brought to the screen vividly by a director who could potentially be in line for his first Oscar.
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