American Gangster is very well constructed. Very sturdy. It's strange to talk about a movie like it's a skyscraper but these are the adjectives that come immediately to mind. American Gangster is that rare sort of movie that inspires lofty expectations (based upon the casting and the trailers) and also directly meets those expectations. I'm not certain of the film's legacy but I am fairly confident in recommending it to damn near anyone who is allowed into (or compelled to see) an R rated film.
You've seen the trailers right? This film is tracking very well so I'm guessing you did. Let's not kid each other. Okay, okay, Denzel Washington plays real life gangster Frank Lucas back in the 70s. Though he's originally from North Carolina Lucas has moved to Harlem and apprenticed under a notorious crime boss. Lucas himself gets a crack at the lucrative drug trade near the start of the film and we’re off. Russell Crowe plays detective Richie Roberts – a New York detective tasked with bringing the drug trafficking and police corruption problem to heel. Crowe versus Denzel for all the marbles under Ridley Scott's directorial eye. Hard to fail with that set-up, right?
I'll offer my only criticism of the film right off the bat. Frank Lucas is the hero of the story. Though the film tried to show consequences, tries to achieve some level of balance, I think it's impossible. Denzel is just too damn likable and you root for him. It's impossible not to. I'm a big fan of anti-hero stories so I don't have a problem with what's an effective method based only upon it working – no, my problem is that this is based on a true story with real life implications. How many people died using Frank Lucas' drugs or by his hand? So when I find myself admiring the man a little alarm bell starts going off. It's a slight one, and the movie is still extremely well made and enjoyable, but I think this factor will keep the movie out of the realm of "great" in terms of historical value. The Departed isn't near as good a film as this but as it's not based on a single character it somehow seems cleaner upon reflection.
Moving on, the film is strong throughout (again with the sturdy). The story is built in a way where you never know exactly what's coming next, and you never know who you should be worried about. Crowe is a dedicated public servant but he's also kind of a bastard too. For instance he's a bad father and the film doesn't hide it. Denzel is a drug dealer with enemies all over the place so you naturally worry for him as well. I'd also be remiss if I didn't point out Josh Brolin's solid work here as a sleazy cop. Between this and his effort in No Country for Old Men I'd say Mr. Brolin is gearing up for a few years worth of good script offers.
This is a film worth seeing if only because it's rare that a script and a concept come together in such a taut, exciting, and interesting way. Perhaps the very point of this film was that Lucas was likable even as a terrible person who did awful things. Perhaps Scott and company are satisfied knowing they told the truest story possible, regardless of the morality of the equation. For my part I'll take a film that makes me think any day of the week and Gangster does that and more. It's a cool feeling film from men who are experts at making cool films. It doesn't have plot holes and it doesn't have downtime. It's only got an expertly crafted story and a nice soundtrack. If you're a fan of movies this is for you. If you're a fan of acting this is for you. If you've read this far then this is for you. We can talk about the rest of the issues later, but check out the movie first. It'll work better that way.