American Gangster

15 01 2008

American GangsterEarly in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, Russell Crowe’s character, a New Jersey detective, discovers almost $1 million in unmarked bills in the trunk of a car. Does he take the money? If he does, he’s entering into the murky world of corruption that the bulk of his colleagues seem to inhabit; if he doesn’t, he’s putting himself in immediate danger because, as his partner observes, “Cops kill cops they can’t trust.” He decides to turn in the money anyway.

On one level, American Gangster is the true story of the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a self-made man who became Harlem’s heroin kingpin in the 1970s by directly importing his product from Thailand and cutting out the middleman. Lucas was a true entrepreneur, applying a ruthlessly capitalistic philosophy to the drug trade — he undercut the competition (who just happened to be the Mafia) by offering twice the quality at half the price.

On a deeper level, however, the film is about police corruption. Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian seem to contend that dirty cops are even worse than the criminals they bully. Washington’s Lucas adheres to his own (albeit twisted) code of ethics — he will snap quickly and mercilessly at anyone who betrays his trust, but he only does what he thinks he needs to do in pursuit of his business goals. The sleazy Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), on the other hand, has no honour, instead abusing his power in order to extort as much money as possible from the men he should be arresting. Trupo, it seems, is the real bad guy here.

American Gangster still

Richie Roberts (Crowe), meanwhile, is caught in the middle. He’s a man who straddles both sides of the fence: staunchly moral when it comes to the temptation of corruption, he nonetheless associates with “wiseguys” after-hours because these were the friends he grew up with. Charged with tracking down the “big fish” in the drug trade, Roberts finds opposition mostly from the police who live off the kickbacks and don’t wish to see their sources of income disappear. And after all, Roberts was the man who (so legend had it) turned in $1 million in cash.

Scott’s ability to evoke the time and place in which the film is set is never out of balance, feeling both contemporary yet still of its time. The soundtrack is excellent, but the costuming in particular is a key part of the narrative: Lucas eschews the gaudy ’70s pimp-style outfit (a “clown suit” he remarks at one point), instead preferring a suit and tie in order to remain low-key. A distinction is clearly drawn between Lucas — a businessman who dresses appropriately — and the hedonists who simply wish to live (and die) to excess.

The performances are excellent. Washington is both charismatic and menacing as Lucas, while Crowe’s turn is more understated than usual but still passionate under the surface — his most surprising scenes are where Roberts fumbles in courtrooms due to his fear of public speaking.

What separates American Gangster from many other films in the genre are the parallels drawn by Lucas (and by extension, Scott and Zaillian) between American-style capitalism and his methods of drug distribution. At one point, he even discusses branding and trademark infringement, citing Pepsi and General Motors as examples. This was a forward-thinking businessman in an unconventional business.

This is perhaps not Scott’s best film, nor the best in the history of gangster/crime films, but it’s certainly one of the better examples of both.

(star)(star)(star)(star)(no star)

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