November 6, 2007

Take Two: American Gangster

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Finally, the most anticipated film since summer has arrived. Ridley Scott’s masterfully crafted crime-drama American Gangster lives up to the hype that has been buzzing around this film. Denzel Washington stars as Frank Lucas, the illustrious and shrewd Harlem heroin kingpin of the late 1960’s-early 70’s. He is juxtaposed with Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a good willed New Jersey cop bundled with the righteousness of Serpico within.

Based on a true story, American Gangster unfolds as two parallel stories which are ultimately on a collision course. As the movie is lengthy, patience is required on the viewer’s end while Scott covers a lot of ground at a rapid pace, leading to a long-awaited final confrontation. American Gangster vividly contrasts the lifestyle differences between Lucas and Roberts. While Lucas lives a life of luxury with several homes up and down the east coast, Roberts lives in a stuffy cramped apartment eating a tuna sandwich with crushed chips on Thanksgiving.

I found myself rooting for Frank Lucas, even though he’s the smooth criminal profiting off the death of thousands. It’s not just because he’s portrayed by the charismatic Denzel, but simply put, he is so cool. With his distinct swagger, an intelligent Lucas devises a scheme to be the king of New York. Effectively cutting out the middle man and his competition, Lucas flies to Vietnam and develops a business deal with a heroin supplier. From Vietnam, hundreds and hundreds of kilos of 100 percent pure heroin will be shipped directly to Lucas in New York cleverly using military personnel.

To avoid spoilers, I will only say that Denzel is one true badass. His intensity flares (like in Training Day) as he takes his enterprise to the next level. Lucas does not negotiate. He gives you one warning (maybe) and if you don’t heed it, then he takes action. By no means is Lucas afraid to get his hands dirty as he will kill his enemies in cold blood on public display. Strangely, he seduces us with his lack of mercy or remorse. Intense scenes like are captivating and keep you even more engrossed as the film progresses.

In contrast, Richie Roberts is an honest cop who is treated as a pariah by coworkers. While Roberts is surrounded by the sea of corruption at the station, he maintains his ethical standards as he refuses to take a dime. He is a true underdog working against immense odds. His co-workers don’t trust him and shun him for turning in one million dollars he found in a trunk. He believes he is doing the right thing in living an honest life. However, we learn the moral ambiguity is that his personal life is in shambles. As his marriage falls apart due to his commitment to his job, he is in and out of court fighting for custody rights of his only child. Because of his inability to be faithful to his wife, she questions his self proclaimed good life. At the film’s climax, his morality and dedication are finally tested.

Frank Lucas is the driving force of the film as he draws us in by splitting our loyalties. The film’s structure gives equal time to Richie as we shift back and forth between Lucas’s rise to fame, and Roberts’ struggle to pin a case on the slippery Lucas. Both characters do not interact until the end of the film, leading to a powerful clash of titans and providing excellent contrast. As an uneducated North Carolinian, Lucas displays some impressive street smarts as he flies under the radar making it difficult for Roberts to discover Lucas as the main distributor.

Ridley Scott’s direction reveals an understanding in the heart of this film that Lucas’ drug empire functions similarly as legitimate corporations. Frank Lucas gets the best product and sells it at a price half the Italian mob families do, effectively creating a monopoly. He trademarks his product as “Blue Magic” and forbids any other dealer to use the name. The movie encompasses the rise of black entrepreneurial capitalism, while the corruption of law enforcement demonstrates the shadowy crossover between the two.

As Richie Roberts puts it in his stare down with Lucas, Frank represents “progress.” During a time of racism and war, it’s remarkable to watch what Frank Lucas accomplished. Frank’s intuition catapulted him above the Italian mob families in the dope trafficking business. Revered by his competition, Lucas keeps his cool.

American Gangster smoothly combines fact-based events with recognizable elements from other classic crime dramas. Although viewers will probably gravitate more towards Denzel, Russell Crowe’s underdog status measures up. The two performances push and pull against one another as the two opposites merge into one intense explosion at the climax. American Gangster is a gripping film and will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end.