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"AMERICAN GANGSTER"
(2007) (Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: An honest to a fault cop tries to catch a Harlem drug lord who's directly importing and selling heroin, thus becoming a legend in his own right.
PLOT:
It's the late 1960s and Frank Lucas (DENZEL WASHINGTON) is the driver for Harlem folk hero and crime figure Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (CLARENCE WILLIAMS III). When the latter dies, Frank takes over the business, immediately clashing with rival crime lord Tango (IDRIS ELBA), especially when Frank decides to cut out the middleman and directly import heroin from Vietnam, thus allowing him to undercut the competition with his one-hundred percent pure product.

He becomes wildly successful, mainly by behaving like a professional businessman and employing various family members, such as his brother, Huey (CHIWETEL EJIOFOR), and moves all of them, along with his mother, Mama Lucas (RUBY DEE), from North Carolina to their own mansion. He also ends up marrying Miss Puerto Rico, Eva (LYMARI NADAL), who's drawn to the gangster's charming demeanor.

While having to deal with other criminal types such as Nicky "Mr. Untouchable" Barnes (CUBA GOODING, JR.) and Dominic Cattano (ARMAND ASSANTE), Frank also draws the attention of others who aren't pleased with his business. Among them is Special Investigation Unit cop Det. Trupo (JOSH BROLIN) who, along with other corrupt cops, takes drugs from police evidence and sells them back to local drug dealers, thus controlling and profiting from the business.

Then there's New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (RUSSELL CROWE) who's so honest and earnest that he draws the ire of his fellow cops when he turns in nearly $1 million of recovered money rather than keep it himself. Facing that, his wife Laurie (CARLA GUGINO) wanting to divorce him and move their son to Vegas, and the death of his addict partner to drugs, Richie accepts a position with the feds to form his own narcotics team and track down the source of the new heroin that's become known as Blue Magic.

With Trupo trying to put the heat on both Frank and Richie to stay out of his business, the gangster and the cop strive to do their own thing, with their paths inevitably destined to cross.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When one mentions the word "gangster," different things will come to mind for those of different generations. The young folk out there will likely think of modern, neighborhood gangs of thugs, or even the rap music poseurs who try to differentiate themselves by replacing the "er" in the label with an "a."

Older folk will probably think of the mafiosos of the '50s through the '80s, or go back even farther to the likes of Dillinger and Capone, notorious and ruthless criminals and killers who nevertheless became outlaw icons that American culture can't seem to shake.

Some gangsters fall somewhere between those extremes, and one of the lesser known but more powerful figures in American history was Frank Lucas. Born in North Carolina, he worked in Harlem for another legendary figure on the local crime scene, "Bumpy Johnson" (portrayed in films such as "Shaft" and "The Cotton Club"), before branching out on his own, smuggling heroin in directly from Vietnam, thus eliminating the middle man and making him wildly successful.

His tale is now told in "American Gangster," a good but (sadly and a bit surprisingly) not quite brilliant film from director Ridley Scott. Most everything about it is -- at minimum -- competently done, and Denzel Washington (as Lucas) and Russell Crowe (as the cop after him) both deliver strong performances. The same holds true for Josh Brolin who's having a stellar year, what with his turn in "No Country For Old Men" and now this pic as a corrupt cop.

The film's biggest problem, though, is that we've seen this story before. Okay, not this exact story, but ones that are similar enough in subject matter that this one doesn't feel particularly fresh or novel. If not for the talent involved (including Oscar winner Steve Zaillian adapting Mark Jacobson's original article into screen form), this easily could have been one of those medium to low profile gangster flicks that barely register.

Of course, one's exposure to cop and gangster dramas will impact how fresh or not the material feels. There's no denying, however, that the film lacks the sort of signature moments that become etched in movie lore or at least generate enough heat to make such pics stand out from the crowd.

Speaking of heat, this film also shares similarities to the 1995 Michael Mann movie of the same name. That's not only due to the cop and gangster storyline, but also because of the way in which it plays out. In "Heat," the film jumps back and forth between the two characters whose paths run parallel and eventually collide. And for that film, the big anticipation was in seeing Pacino and De Niro in the same scene, toe to toe and decidedly mano a mano.

The same holds true here. Considering that Washington and Crowe are arguably two of the best actors working today, most everyone will be salivating for the moment the two butt heads. Much of the nearly 160 minute film, however, ends up being cinematic foreplay, where the story cuts back and forth between the actors' characters until their eventual rendezvous.

Granted, that does allow the filmmakers to contrast the decidedly different personas -- Washington's smooth, professional and charming drug lord who can erupt in brutal violence with shocking speed vs. Crowe's honest and earnest to a fault, working class cop who ends up driving away most everyone in his life, including his wife (Carla Gugino) and child.

When the two heavyweights finally meet, the film feels as if it's finally going to take off into brilliance. At that point, however, it's already been chugging along for quite a while. Whether feeling studio pressure to keep the running time below three hours or for some other reason, Scott ends up racing through this last part of the third act, thus giving the film an unwelcome, rushed feeling, while also robbing viewers of what they've been patiently waiting for.

It's certainly not a fatal flaw, but that, some characters and related storylines feeling a bit shortchanged, and the lack of cinematic pizzazz prevent this from being an outstanding or memorable classic of the genre. It's good, but I was expecting great or at least something different, and thus "American Gangster" rates as just a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 4, 2007 / Posted November 2, 2007


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