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November 7, 2007 > American Gangster - A Double-barreled Punch

American Gangster - A Double-barreled Punch

By Joe Samagond

Call it the ghetto "Scarface" or the black "Godfather," but "American Gangster" is looking like a major awards contender. Denzel Washington looms like a colossus as notorious drug lord Frank Lucas. A nervous but focused Russell Crowe channels Serpico as Richie Roberts, the honest Jersey cop who wants to take Frank down. Camera legend Harris Savides shoots on the fly and director Ridley Scott is at the top of his game.

In business, Frank doesn't believe in a job half done. An uneducated force of nature from North Carolina who hits New York as a driver for black mobster Bumpy Johnson, Frank is soon a star peddler of heroin who takes over when his boss hits the bucket. Through ingenuity and a strict business ethic, he comes to rule the inner-city drug trade, flooding the streets with a purer product at a better price. He does it the hard way, by cutting out the middlemen, including the mob. Frank flies to Southeast Asia to buy the junk, smuggles it stateside in the coffins of Vietnam soldiers, bribes police and the military, hires his brothers and cousins to help run his operation, and sits back with his wife (Lymari Nadal) as the millions roll in from the drug he calls "Blue Magic." He even buys his version of Graceland for his good mama (Ruby Dee). Lucas eventually outplays all the crime syndicates and joins the circle of legitimate citizen leaders.

Denzel is calm, ferocious, and cool at the same time. As Frank he nearly flies under Richie's radar until he breaks conservative form and pimps out by wearing a chinchilla coat and hat to an Ali-Frazier fight. That makes him a target. Who wants him dead most? A rival dealer (Cuba Gooding Jr.,); a bad cop (Josh Brolin); a mob boss (Armand Assante doing low sleaze to a high turn). The movie is also about race, class, and the few believers in truth and justice on the streets where it really counts. American Gangster isn't all blistering action; it has bite and timely relevance.

Russell Crowe eases into this role like fish to water, underplaying his part in just the right amounts. He plays the straight-shooting detective so clean that he refuses to keep nearly $1 million in illegally obtained cash when he and his partner secretly recover it. He is sincere, honest and cannot be "bought." Roberts charges forward, taking night classes to become an attorney. He is eventually rewarded with a position in a newly formed drug enforcement unit and his first task is to go after the drug kingpins. His investigation slowly leads to Lucas. Like most honest movie cops, his family life sucks and that delivers another sub-plot.

Both Lucas and Roberts share a rigorous ethical code that sets them apart from their own colleagues, making them lone figures on opposite sides of the law. The destinies of these two men will become intertwined as they approach a confrontation where only one of them can come out on top. But as Richie's grip tightens around Frank, the movie closes in for the kill by crosscutting between a massacre and a church service. The climax also allows Washington and Crowe to finally occupy the screen together with a great deal of shared electricity.

Despite the length of the movie (2.5 hours), it did not seem too long because the film is well paced well and leads up to an acceptable resolution. With powerful performances by Academy award winners in their principal roles, as well as the remainder of the cast playing integral supporting roles that move the story forward, I'd rate this as one of this year's better films. ''American Gangster'' is played out as a two-pronged effort, spending half its time looking at Lucas' drug operation and the other half spotlighting Roberts and his team's quest to take down bad guys. Because Crowe and Washington are such fine actors, this approach works well, giving each performer the chance to showcase their individual talents and deliver a double-barreled blockbuster.

"American Gangster" is rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality. Runtime: 157 minutes

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