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It's funny how movies sometimes seem to come out in pairs; whether it be two asteroid films or two animated movies about bugs or ocean creatures or two dramatic action flicks about WWII, sets of similarly-themed films have a nack for coming out within weeks of each other. While not quite as literal an example as the Deep Impact/Armageddon or Saving Private Ryan/The Thin Red Line classics of years past, Ridley Scott's new epic, American Gangster, opens today, close on the heels of Marc Levin's documentary, Mr. Untouchable, which opened last week. The similarity? Levin's documentary, which I covered earlier this week, details the life and times of real-life 1970s Harlem drug lord, Nicky Barnes. Similarly, American Gangster details the life and times of real-life 1970s Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas, and Barnes, played here by Cuba Gooding Jr., plays a small part in the story of Lucas' illustrious career in crime. It's a small coincidence, but one wonders whether Levin's documentary's release date was intentionally timed to maximize a ride on the coattails of this very satisfying, very high-profile new effort from Scott.
Denzel Washington stars in the film as Lucas, an erstwhile driver for New York gangster Bumpy Johnson who rises to the top of the city's expansive drug empire after his boss's death. Washington's counterpart is Russell Crowe in the role of New Jersey cop Richie Roberts, a sad sack character in the classic gritty cop role; while attempting to protect and serve, Roberts is simultaneously dealing with a custody battle over his son and attending law school at night. Although their stories play out simultaneously, they do so in completely different worlds and Lucas and Roberts don't actually meet until the very end of the film. The realm Lucas presides over is one of wealth and glamour and class, although he smartly avoids being seduced by the flash and fame he could so easily flaunt as one of New York's biggest drug dealers. "The loudest one in the room is the weakest," Lucas was known to say, and it is in fact a gaudy item of clothing, reluctantly accepted from his wife, that leads to his undoing. Lucas does possess the extremely violent and explosive temper necessary for controlling a large criminal organization; he unleashes his fury even upon his brothers (one played by rapper Common), who he had brought up to work from his North Carolina home. Roberts is a similar character, the law-and-order mirror to Lucas' thug; a straight-laced cop on the outs with his brothers in blue for refusing to participate in the NYPD's rampant corruption. Their stories flow along side-by-side, and when they do finally meet, Scott thankfully doesn't give it the melodrama of, say, the meeting of DeNiro and Pacino in Heat.
Although it feels a bit disjointed at first, like a group of set pieces, American Gangster's story soon comes together in an exciting and precise manner. The film is stylized for a sort of 1970s cop flick look, but the director's attention to detail is astounding, even if some of the hairstyles are a bit over the top. The film's plot unfolds as Lucas diligently sets up a pipeline of heroin from Thailand to New York via the U.S. military, which is mired in the Vietnam War. Along the way Lucas also gains the grudging respect of the Mafia, and although they clearly look down upon him for being a successful black man in a line of work they consider to be theirs it is a notable achievement for a North Carolina-born black man in New York less than a decade after the Civil Rights movement. While Lucas is busy sinking his roots into the Big Apple's heroin market, Roberts is slowly putting the pieces of the drug ring together despite the best efforts of the New York police, lead by the always-entertaining Josh Brolin. With the task of unraveling Lucas' cartel, Roberts is helped out by a textbook undercover team of cops, all denim, Afros, and mustaches, including the RZA who capably plays a cop called Moses Jones.
Coming off a string of relatively disregarded films, Oscar-winner Russell Crowe seems to be at his best playing the softer side of the hero spectrum, filling out the roles of underdog New Jersey cops or corporate whistle-blowers in The Insider better than he does the stone-cold hunks of Gladiator or Master and Commander. And Denzel is, well, Denzel - since his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day Washington seems to relish playing the bad guy, but always with poise and sense. Sometimes you can't help but wonder what it would look like to see him ease up and lose some of his restraint, but it is hard to argue with the man's methods. Overall, American Gangster is a solid film for Ridley Scott, especially coming after his last dalliance, A Good Year. This time around, he's putting his muse, Crowe, to much better use. SEE ALSO: www.americangangster.net
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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