Last night a group and I watched American Gangster. The movie has received great critical success, having been nominated for two Oscars. We watched the 176-minute unrated version, which adds nineteen minutes to the theatrical version.
The film juxtaposes the true stories of heroine mogul Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who pursued him. As one falls, the other rises. It is the third film that Crowe has done with director Ridley Scott (most notably, Gladiator), with two more already being signed.
The film is set primarily from 1968-1973. The essential premise is that Lucas is an unassuming drug lord as he is African-American, has no mafia ties, and has discovered how to cut out the middle man in narcotics by securing his own agreement in Southeast Asia. I suppose he was like the Wal-Mart of drug dealers.
The movie has no connection to the Jay-Z album of the same name, but is rather based upon an article in New York Magazine called “The Return of Superfly.” The original article can be found online here. It is worth reading just for the grocery list of drug names used in the period. The most interesting tidbit as a Knoxville native, was that Frank Lucas was incarcerated in Knoxville as a youth.
To be completely honest, I did not enjoy the film all that much. Do not get me wrong - for what the film hoping to accomplish, it was superb. I struggle with the fact that in the age of the anti-hero, there was no one I could identify with, and not just because there were no middle class Caucasians to be found.
There was simply no character in the film that embodied any of the values that I would root for. Crowe’s character, Roberts, is maligned by his police department for returning one million dollars in unmarked bills, clearly the right action. This sets the backdrop for the corrupt system for which he is apart. Still, Roberts is an adulterer, and neglectful father with criminal ties.
His wife, Laurie (Carla Gugino), is used as the mirror by which he sees himself as he truly is. Wives are good for this. In a custody hearing, Roberts accuses his wife of resenting his returning the money. He pleads, “Don’t punish me for being honest.” She responds in a telling tirade:
“You don’t take money for one reason - to buy being dishonest about everything else. And that’s worse than taking money nobody gives a shit about...You think you are going to heaven because you’re honest, but you’re not. You’re going to the same hell as the crooked cops you can’t stand.”
In his most redemptive act in the film, Crowe concedes custody and walks out of the courtroom. His most righteous moment comes at the moment he realizes that his righteousness was “filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6, KJV) This appealed to the preacher in me as the best scene in the movie.
In contrast, Denzel’s charm is such that the viewer almost forgets he is a cold-blooded killer, willing to violent reprimand even his own family for seemingly small infractions. He even takes his mother to church every Sunday and that is the scene of his ultimate arrest.
Where was God in all of this? Do you think that the characters or producers ever even considered this aspect? (I realize that is not their job.)
Some completely random thoughts: I cannot see Cuba Gooding as a gangster after his Hanes commercials, not to mention Snowdogs. The rapper, Common, plays one of Frank Lucas’ brothers. “Common,”once “Common Sense” is one of the worst rap names ever! Does Denzel ever use an accent?
In short, the film’s lack of endearing character and anticlimactic ending merit it only a 6/10 for me, but I feel most of my friends, especially men, would enjoy the film.
Current IMDB rating: 8.1/10. Chanalysis: 6/10