The American cinema has long been obsessed with villains and crime. Nothing is cooler than Darth Vader, Patrick Bateman or Sam Jackson in “Pulp Fiction.” It’s no wonder that the gangster film has flourished throughout the history of cinema. It’s automatically full of drama and action and suspense, the three best ingredients for a great film. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have recently been reinventing the genre for the newer generations with movies such as “Goodfellas” and “Reservoir Dogs.”
This is what director Ridley Scott wanted to do with his newly released film, “American Gangster.” More known for his action and science fiction staples such as “Gladiator” and “Alien,” Scott takes on a much more human story this time around.
Based on a true story, “Gangster” follows the rise of a man from Harlem in the crime world and a cop who is out to catch him and his cohorts.
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a black man in Harlem working as a driver for a crime boss who has united the area of New York, until the crime boss dies in 1968. Suddenly, Harlem and parts of New York are vulnerable to a multitude of people trying to gain power. Lucas seizes the opportunity, using the lessons that his mentor had taught him to build his own drug empire.
Realizing that heroin is on the rise due in large part to the Vietnam War, Frank works a deal to cut out the middleman and import the drug to Harlem directly from Southeast Asia. Lucas is able to exploit the market by selling his 100 percent pure heroin at half the price that more diluted drugs sell for; branding his powder with the name “Blue Magic.”
Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is busy working in a New Jersey precinct trying to remain one of the few honest cops in a time of corruption. At one point, Roberts finds close to $1 million that he could easily take, but instead turns it in to his department.
Seeing his honesty, the Federal government gives Roberts the job of spearheading a new nationwide war on drugs in his jurisdiction. Roberts assembles a team of committed, honest and riff-raff men whose sole purpose is to make arrests on major drug dealers and suppliers. Eventually, they discover that the man behind New York’s major heroin circuit is Frank Lucas and make him their number one target.
“Gangster” is certainly not a family film, nor is it feel-good in nature. Scott establishes the sorrowful, serious tone of the movie very early in the opening scene. The scene has Frank Lucas whacking someone for his boss, reminiscent of Mr. Blonde’s famous scene from “Reservoir Dogs.”
Scott also isn’t afraid of the violence he has to film in order to make the movie real. He approaches violence much like the character of Frank Lucas does: he’ll do it when he needs to, but otherwise he tries to be a gentleman. Scott is never ramming scenes of killing down our throats, which makes it all the more powerful when there is bloodshed.
The best part of the action is that Scott films them more statically than he has in other movies, where it looks like the camera is going through an earthquake.
The film follows the same rags-to-riches-to-rags structure that “Scarface” does, with a powerful and pensive ending. There are themes that run through the movie, such as the American dream, the flawed legal system, and questions of what makes someone good and what makes someone bad.
Interestingly enough, Frank Lucas becomes an enemy of the community he tried to serve. He shared his wealth in ways that his former boss did, such as handing out free turkeys on Thanksgiving. However, his success is also rendered in the extreme destructive power of heroin on the lives of people living in the projects.
It’s these moments that make Lucas seem terrible, when he is driving around in a Rolls Royce while families suffer from their addiction to his “Blue Magic.”
Another intriguing part of the film is its sound design. The soundtrack is carefully chosen. The film takes place in the late ’60s and mid-’70s, which is where most of the music comes from.
However, the songs aren’t chosen just from one genre, but depend on what culture is on screen. For instance, the scenes in Harlem or with Lucas use funk and soul music while scenes with Roberts or the Vietnam War use more of what is now classic rock. It was a minor detail, but one that subconsciously plays large in the viewer’s mind.
There were only a few problems in “Gangster,” mostly stemming from pieces of the puzzle most likely left out to keep the movie from running over three hours long.
One such moment is when Lucas shoots someone in the street in front of at least 100 people. There was no mention of it ever again, and it was troublesome that no one tried to prosecture him. After awhile, I had just assumed that he paid off whomever he wanted to, and this moment was left out.
It’s these subtleties that are the weaknesses for “Gangster,” but I can imagine why they were left out. The movie is long enough as it is, and adding minor scenes that play no role in the overall narrative arc would be boring.
Scott explores themes of humanity that keep the movie flowing. The acting is top notch, and stylistically, Scott achieves greatness. Come Februrary, expect this film to be up for a Best Picture award at the Oscars.