Review: American Gangster (2007)

A friend asked me the other day why I wanted to see American Gangster because she didn’t think I liked “that kind of movie.” My friend apparently doesn’t know about my unhealthy obsession with The Departed (or The Godfather, or The Sopranos, or Goodfellas). American Gangster is exactly the kind of movie I love. Organized crime, character driven stories, Ruby Dee, set in New Jersey/New York during the 1960s/1970s, and violence…a lot of violence.

American Gangster, directed by Ridley Scott, is based on the true story of Frank Lucas, a Harlem drug lord who bought heroin directly from his source in Southeast Asia. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lucas controlled Harlem’s organized crime circut and is best known for the “cadaver connection“; he used the coffin’s of dead American soldiers to smuggle the heroin into the country.

Lucas is played by Denzel Washington, who once again proves that playing the villian comes naturally and his performance will probably earn Washington his sixth Academy Award nomination.

Lucas’ foil is New Jersey Detective Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who sets out the bring down Lucas’ Harlem reign and has his own countless personal problems. Lucas and Roberts are perfect foils for one another and by comparing their personalities, Scott portrays a gritty anad shocking world. But Washington and Crowe only deliver good portrayals of their characters; for example the more dangerous and violent Lucas becomes, the weaker Washington’s acting is.

The truly remarkable performance in American Gangster is that by veteran stage and screen actress Ruby Dee, who portrays Mama Lucas. It takes Ruby Dee just one scene (and one slap)to deliver the film’s most powerful moment, where she defends her decision to ignore Frank’s career choices but she also condemns her son’s disregard for the law. Dee (at this stage in the Oscar race) is a long shot for an Oscar nomination, but I would argue that her performance is the only one performance in American Gangster that deserves Academy recognition.

Aside from Ruby Dee’s performance, American Gangster‘s best accomplishment is it’s tribute to 1970’s crime dramas. The film offers a gritty representation of the world, similar to that in The French Connection. This stylistic choice gives American Gangster a much needed sense of direction and relevance. While this is an enjoyable movie, the overall quality of American Gangster falls flat and it fails to come close to its genre counterparts.

American Gangster is a good, well-made film, but I really hope something better is out there so I won’t have to cringe during the Oscars.

Updated October 20, 2010