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Columns > Evan Winiker

Published: 2007/11/18
by Evan Winiker

American Gangster

Directed by Ridley Scott
It’s very rare for a film to be called an instant classic, usually time goes by, actors age, and the roles that they epitomized when they were young are looked back on as their best performances. For Denzel Washington, this ethos does not apply. At 53, he seems to bring the same passion to the screen that he brought when he was just a young actor playing Dr. Chandler on St. Elsewhere. He’s found a way to transform himself in every role, and with his latest film, American Gangster, he’ll be rewarded come oscar season!
American Gangster is a true crime epic set in 1970’s Harlem. The film centers around Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a heroine dealer who built his own drug empire (one that eclipsed even the mafias) and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the cop that tried to bring him down. In the early 1970’s Lucas was still a driver for Harlem crime lord Bumpy, when Bumpy suddenly died, Lucas took his knowledge and began to build his own American dream. With his connections in the US Army, Lucas exported heroine from Vietnam in the caskets of dead American soldiers. It was years before anyone caught onto him, and by that time Lucas already had 3/4 of the city’s cops on payroll, so it was gonna take a clean detective to bring him down. That detective was Bronx resident Richie Roberts, an outcast in the force because he wouldn’t take money, Roberts sets out to discover who’s taken the mafia’s place at the top of the drug underworld. When he finds out that Lucas and his family are on top of the pyramid, he goes after them and all hell breaks loose.
Though Lucas and Roberts are on opposite sides of the law, they share the same moral code, this is something that separates them from their partners (Lucas’s family gets into drugs and Roberts cops are all dirty). It is also interesting because Frank Lucas is supposed to be the villain, yet the viewer often cheers for him despite all of the bad stuff that he’s done. Ridley Scott did an unbelievable job telling this story. It’s tough to truly document a rise and fall drama without being factually inaccurate, and from what I’ve read, it seems as if he did an A+ job. He was also able to capture the feel of the time, not only in the wardrobe, but also in the music and even in the actors’ movements. This is tough for me to say but I actually liked Russell Crowe in this one, who would’ve thought that one of his best roles would be as a Jewish cop from the Bronx? Certainly not me. It’s tough to notice how good a job he does because Denzel Washington shines as Frank Lucas. Not since Al Pacino played Scarface or Marlon Brando played the Don has an actor fit more into the role of a movie mobster, showing us his dark side as well as his bright side.
This is not a movie to miss, and I guess America realized that. In its first weekend it took in 43 million, not bad for a movie that almost never got made. Originally titled Tru Blu, the film was supposed to star Denzel Washington, Benicio Del Toro and Ray Liotta. Thankfully the studio shut it down because it went over budget. After a script rewrite, Crowe and Scott signed on and the project was renamed. A fitting title for the best drug epic of the early 21st century, American Gangster.

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