DVD Release Date:  February 19, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  November 2, 2007
Rating:  R (for violence, pervasive drug content, language, nudity and sexuality)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  157 minutes
Director:  Ridley Scott
Actors:  Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, Armand Assante, Cuba Gooding Jr., Joe Morton

Two great actors and a great director have teamed up for the not-so-great American Gangster, yet another look at one man’s rise to power and his struggle to maintain hold of that power as the law moves in. Aiming for the status of an epic, American Gangster has to settle for being merely passable, if not particularly excellent in any way. All of the principals involved here—Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott—have delivered more compelling, urgent films in the past, significantly lowering the “must see” quotient for this high-powered, but sometimes plodding, drama.

Washington is Frank Lucas, a Harlem drug lord in the early 1970s who obtains heroin directly from Asia, cutting out the middle man and selling a purer form of the drug directly to customers. His entrepreneurial spirit turns him into a legend equal to any Italian mafia Don. With the help of some in the U.S. military, his product is shipped (along with dead American soldiers) back to the states.

Frank shares his wealth with his family, putting his siblings on the payroll and buying his mother (Ruby Dee) a mansion. He asserts his power by publicly killing his rivals, with no fear that he’ll be turned in by admiring neighbors.

As played by Washington, Lucas is a smooth criminal, always in command of his business but never flashy enough to attract attention from the police. His fatal mistake comes when he wears an opulent fur coat to a boxing match, where police officer Richie Roberts (Crowe) notices him among other lowlifes in the audience. Roberts—a clean cop amid the on-the-take drug enforcement officers in New York—doesn’t have many friends on the force. His marriage has failed, and his current relationships are purely sexual.

The two men are a study in contrasts. Frank attends church with his mother and says grace in the name of Jesus, but he’s a ruthless killer. Roberts’ personal life is full of failures, but his commitment to justice trumps the temptations to which so many of his fellow officers succumb.

The film cuts between the two characters until they finally meet. Their discussion, across a table from one another, is well played—one of the few memorable scenes in a film that should have had more. Surprisingly, the actor who makes the strongest impression in the film is Josh Brolin, a sleazy detective who complicates Roberts’ investigation and exemplifies the dirty-cop culture of the time.

American Gangster doesn’t add much to the long parade of gangster films already available. Centering on an African-American protagonist, the film doesn’t directly address race relations, but at its most provocative it suggests Lucas’ actions had a cost that was far less significant for the country than were those of the Vietnam War and America’s war on drugs—the backdrop against which American Gangster takes place. However, Scott and screenwriter Steven Zallian know what the audience is most interested in—sudden, shocking violence—and they feed it to the audience with just enough frequency to sate bloodthirsty viewers.

Those who have tired of violent stories peppered with harsh language will find the film unsavory. Those who still crave such thrills may be satisfied by American Gangster, but even fans of the genre will have seen better entries than this. Well acted but too long, this American crime saga is simply overkill. It takes more than two-and-a-half hours of our time, and offers too little in return.

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@earthlink.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Lots of drug use, including multiple scenes of drugs being injected into arms.
  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; many profanities; racial epithets.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Lots of upper female nudity; female dancers at male clubs; Roberts shown in bed with a woman; a vigorous sex scene in an office, with the man and woman mostly clothed.
  • Violence:  Man doused in fuel, then lit on fire; man bites a hand; sledgehammer to the head; man shot in the head at point-blank range; man shot in the leg, then slammed repeatedly by a piano top; man beaten to death; man strikes a woman in the face, and a woman slaps a man across the face; dog is shot; suicide; police/gangster shootout.