Washington gets an American Godfather
I've heard Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" being called "The Godfather" for the 21st century, but sadly it isn't, it doesn't even come close to the epic superiority of Francis Ford Coppola's genre defining movie. But that doesn't mean it's a bad movie, in fact "American Gangster" is much better than many movies which came out in the first decade of the 21st century it just isn't in the same league as "The Godfather" when it comes to drama, action, storytelling and more importantly balance because it's all a little one sided.
Having served under crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) as his right hand man, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington - John Q) now rules Harlem with the ruthlessness and honour he learned from his mentor, shipping in drugs from Vietnam and selling them cheaper than anyone else. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe - 3:10 to Yuma) an honest cop in a corrupt force is given the job of setting up his own undercover operation to discover who is behind all these cheap drugs and to bring them down.
As with many a movie which is "inspired by a true story" there are many liberties taken in turning that story into something more cinematic so that it both runs smoothly but with a decent pace and an injection of action/intrigue to keep you enthralled in the unravelling story. As is the case where Richie Roberts having brought down a criminal then also happens to try him in court having only just got his qualifications to work as a lawyer, it just doesn't work like that in real life. This is just one of many contrivances which you are obliged to accept in order for "American Gangster" to be both pacey and interesting. In all honesty it's not that hard to accept them because the storyline does manage to keep you interested, it twists and turns revealing the unexpected, yes the unexpected, and those contrivances are easily over looked, even forgiven.
But despite this issue "American Gangster" is an interesting movie showing you two sides of the drug world during the early 70's where it was becoming part of popular culture. On one side you have Frank Lucas the mastermind behind a lot of the drug business, who having done his apprenticeship working as the assistant to crime boss Bumpy Johnson now runs his own crime gang. It certainly an interesting angle delivering much of the behind the scenes action which went into his drug organisation, from the shipping of it from Vietnam through to the manufacture of it for the sale on the streets. Its eye opening stuff such as the girls he employs to cut the drugs working naked so that they can't steal any of the merchandise, it's pretty obvious but eye opening for those who have never been into the drugs world.
It's also the character of Frank Lucas which is interesting and it has to be said magnificently played by Denzel Washington. In the opening scenes you see him ruthlessly dispatching someone on the orders of Bumpy and this ruthlessness continues through out the movie, killing people who cross him in equally ruthless ways. This extends to members of his own family who go against his orders, dishing out beatings in the blink of an eye. But then there is the other side of him, the loyal, respectful side where he loves his mother and his wife but also keeping up with traditions such as religiously tending to Bumpy's grave. It's a wonderful character almost enigmatic which draws you into his world and shows you why he behaves in such a manner. One of the most interesting aspects is that he keeps a low profile, shunning the glitz and glamour for privacy and staying under the radar of watchful eyes.
On the other hand you also have the story of Richie Roberts a seriously honest cop in a police force full of underhand dealings and theft. It's another interesting aspect of the movie which attempts to highlight how corrupt the police were back in the early 70's and how being honest made you untrustworthy because you were likely to shop your own mates. The delving behind the scenes both in the stories of Richie and Frank are very reminiscent of "Casino" where we get that privy look at how things are done, although in the case of "American Gangster" it doesn't have Martin Scorsese's trademark camera technique to wow you. But it works drawing you into how things operated back in the 70's before getting into the main part of the movie which is Richie trying to bring down whoever it is shipping in drugs and then selling them on the streets.
As with Washington, Russell Crowe's performance is very good as Richie Roberts, maybe a little less captivating because his storyline lacks the glamour of the criminal underworld but even so is still a very good performance. I always find it hard to watch top name actors in movies because you tend to carry over elements of their previous performances into their current role, but with Richie Roberts Crowe makes him unique, there is nothing in him which reminds you of something else Crowe has done before allowing you to watch him as a character rather than just an actor doing the same thing again.
But whilst the two performances and the two sides of the story are both interesting the movie has that feeling of being unbalanced with the Frank Lucas side of the movie being far more interesting than Richie Roberts's story. It means that the movie goes from being generally entertaining and intriguing to a little bit flatter when it switches to focus on Richie and his attempts to find out who the drug lord is. In many ways it's not a bad thing showing the differences in their lifestyles but at times it feels like one scene jars with another because of the change in pace and action.
Although at times "American Gangster" appears to jar, the parallel storylines work well with Ridley Scott building them both up in layers until they finally cross over towards the end of the movie. It works well delivering in some ways an expected ending but then throwing you a twist to keep you on your toes. The same can be said of the whole movie as just when you start to feel comfortable with the storylines unravelling something is thrown at you either a slight twist or a bit of action which demands your attention.
What has to be said is that at times "American Gangster" is a violent movie, not blood thirsty but honest in the way the violence is portrayed. Beatings are dished out in such a volatile way that they will make you shudder. The same can be said about the look into the world of drugs which whilst it doesn't revel with overly graphical looks at people taking drugs it shows the effects in a bleak raw way. It definitely can be said that whilst "American Gangster" is 100% commercial it is not an overly glossy or pleasant look at the world of crime.
What this all boils down to is that yes "American Gangster" is a seriously impressive movie with solid performances from both Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington as well as an interesting storyline which develops into a final crescendo, but it is certainly not as some have suggested "The Godfather" for the 21st century. Despite being 150 minutes long it doesn't have that epic feeling and often the parallel storylines jar because of the contrast between them. But it is one of the better movies from the first decade of the 21st century and one which can be watched numerous times without it losing it's impact.