American Gangster Review
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Last year, gangster movie The Departed proved to be Oscar Gold for director Martin Scorsese. And as we film critics have endured an endless succession of less-than-impressive Oscar hopefuls this fall, we held on to our hope that director Ridley Scott’s new gangster movie, American Gangster, would at least add a little excitement to a lackluster fall. And, fortunately, it didn’t let us down.

Based on a true story, American Gangster depicts the rise and fall of ‘70s New York drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Though he was once just the driver for one of Harlem’s crime bosses, after his boss’s death, Frank decides to pick up where he left off. A smart and ruthless businessman, Frank finds a way to smuggle massive quantities of heroin to New York—where he can sell a better product at a lower price than everyone else.

But as Frank’s business grows, he attracts the attention of the police. Some just want their cut. Others, like New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) are just trying to do their job and bring in the bad guys.

It’s hard to believe that Scott and Crowe are the same guys who made last year’s completely forgettable romance, A Good Year—because the two films couldn’t be more different. A Good Year was pretty and sweet and completely cliché—while American Gangster is dark and gritty and thought-provoking. And this time, they got it right.

Though it’s a long movie (over two and a half hours—so don’t skip your pre-movie bathroom break), the length is, for the most part, totally necessary—because American Gangster tells a rather complex story that involves all kinds of characters. So, despite its exhausting runtime, the movie itself is anything but tiresome. At the same time, though, if you’re looking for two and a half hours of non-stop thrills, chills, and gunfights, you’ve come to the wrong place. Because while there’s plenty of action (and it’s shockingly intense, to say the least), that’s not really the focus of the film.

American Gangster is more of a thinking man’s action movie—one that focuses its attention on its two fascinating characters. On one hand, you have the clean-cut, church-going family man who hands out turkeys in Harlem on Thanksgiving. But he’s the gangster. The Bad Guy. On the other hand, you have the scruffy, Hawaiian-shirted womanizer and unfit father. He’s the good cop. The Good Guy. And that makes for a captivating story of good guys and bad guys, right and wrong.

Of course, no review of this film would be complete without a few words about the cast—but really, there’s not much to say. The performances couldn’t be much better. Washington is so smooth that you’ll forget he’s the bad guy—and Crowe is so messy and awkward that you’ll forget he’s the good guy. Their performances only add more power to an already strong story. And even the actors in lesser roles—from Chiwetel Edjiofor as Frank’s brother to Josh Brolin as a crooked New York cop—bring their A-game.

American Gangster is a smart and shocking film about two intriguing characters. Head to the theater to check this one out. And take me with you—because I can’t wait to see it again.

Is the Academy ready for another award-winning gangster movie? We’ll just have to wait and see. But I said it last year, and I’ll say it again: dust off your tux, Ridley. Awards season is right around the corner.

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