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American Gangster (9/10)

by Tony Medley

Even though this film lasts 2 hours 40 minutes, it is a gem. Frank White (Denzel Washington) is a driver for Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), who was Harlem’s crime boss, for 15 years. After he dies, Frank sets up a huge drug operation on his own terms, complying with his own strict business standards and buying directly from SE Asia, delivered in Army coffins of dead servicemen, and distributed by himself and his own family.  But he stayed below the radar for awhile. Then he came out of the closet and was noticed by his flamboyant dress.

Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a Serpico-type honest cop, who lives by standards he refuses to relax. Unfortunately, he is an honest cop in a corrupt police department in New Jersey. He is assigned to set up a task force to put an end to rampant drug trafficking. That sets him on a collision course with Frank.

Even though this film almost didn’t get made (it was cancelled once after it had been cast and a lot of preproduction had already been done), it is expertly directed by Ridley Scott. This tale, based on a true story, is really two stories. One is how Frank sets up his operation and rewards his family. The other is how Richie finds out about him and goes about bringing him down, despite the corruption of the New York City cops who are on the take, especially the hateful Det. Trupo, played by Josh Brolin. Trupo is only interested in shaking down the pushers to make more money for himself.

According to this film, White took over the trade because his “Blue Magic” coke was 10% pure, as compared with the 5% pure of his competitors. Even so, he undercut his competitors and sold it for less than they were getting for their inferior stuff. At one point he was making $1 million per day.

Washington and Crowe are two of the best actors, not just today, but of all time. However, unlike other films that have featured two such notable talents (1965’s Becket with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole comes immediately to mind, but there are lots of others), they are not in the same scenes together until the last ten minutes of the movie. In essence, this is two different films, one starring Washington and the other starring Crowe.

No matter, the film is so expertly directed and written (Steven Zaillian, based on Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article about Frank White, The Return of Superfly), that there is not a single moment when I was tempted to look at my watch and try to hurry it along.

Washington’s recreation of the real White is remarkable. Here’s how Jaconson described him as a 69-year-old in his article:

Frank's laugh: It's a trickster's sound, a jeer that cuts deep. First he rolls up his shoulders and cranes back his large, angular face, which, despite all the wear and tear, remains strikingly handsome, even empathetic in a way you'd like to trust but know better. Then the smooth, tawny skin over his cheekbones creases, his ashy lips spread, and his tongue snakes out of his gate-wide mouth. Frank has a very long, very red tongue. Only then the soundtrack kicks in, staccato stabs of mirth followed by a bevy of low rumbled cackles.

Frank established his bona fides on the street by his murder of a competitor, realistically told in the movie. The real Frank White told Jacobson, “After I killed that boy, from that day on, I could take any amount of money, set it on the corner, and put my name on it. FRANK LUCAS. I guarantee you, nobody would touch it.”

Washington and Crowe aren’t the only actors to watch, however, This is an A-list movie of talent. Backing them up are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, to name a few.

Although the film has some violence, and there is a shootout near the end, the violence is not as graphic as, say, Eastern Promises. Some violence is necessary in the story of a drug lord and the police who take him down, but Scott, to his credit, does not overdo it.

My only criticism of the film is that Scott and Zaillian make White out as some sort of hero, even though he was a cold-blooded killer who ensnared many victims in drug addiction. The man was no hero; he was a creep. There should have been more in the film about how his drug distribution destroyed lives, increased crime, and harmed innocent victims.

With that in mind, this is a highly entertaining film.

October 11, 2007