American Gangster (*** 1/2)

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Ridley Scott’s new epic crime film follows two men who each have their own moral code and personal set of ethics. Of course, they are on opposite sides of the law. Their separate narratives combine to create a story that only could’ve happened in America, a place where the line between right and wrong, good and bad, criminal and cop is sometimes blurred beyond all recognition. It’s based on a true story, but who’s to say how much is true. If you want facts, read a book.Denzel Washington stars as Frank Lucas, a small-time hood who, in the late 60s, became the most powerful gangster in New York. As the film opens, Lucas is the chauffeur/collector/ right hand man for Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III, in an uncredited yet perfectly captured performance), the much-loved Harlem community leader/gangster, until Bumpy bites the big one. Lucas, bemoaning that his former boss had power but was still owned by the white man, decides to corner the drug market. How he does this is one of the many surprises of the twisty, tangled web this film weaves.Russell Crowe costars as Richie Roberts, the honest, womanizing cop whose story becomes intertwined with Lucas’. Roberts is on a task force created to take on the recent heroin epidemic, and one of the film’s ironies is that no one, cop or criminal, believes that an African-American could be controlling the drug supply. Eventually, even the Mafia Don (Armand Assante, doing his very best Marlon Brando impression) will be in Lucas’ pocket.The screenplay, by Steve Zallian, based upon the magazine article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson, does a mighty job of turning what could’ve been a unbelievably confusing gangster movie into a character-driven movie about the American dream. All Lucas really wants is love, safety, a house for his mother and maybe, just maybe, a little wealth. Of course, the film isn’t shy on showing that while Lucas helped make a very small percentage of the African-American community wealthy and better off, he did much more damage than good. Scott and cinematographer Harris Savides do a remarkable job of showing the haunting, gritty reality of drug addiction (probably inspired not only by the Steven Soderbergh film Traffic but also by the HBO show “The Wire.”)Denzel Washington gives his fiercest, strongest performance in a long while as Frank Lucas, creating a man who is smooth, clever and charming, but who can flip on a dime to a ruthless, cunning bastard. Watch his scene in the diner, for example, where he calmly excuses himself in the middle of a speech to take care of an “associate.” Russell Crowe is exceptional also, as the cop who struggles to stay honest in a bureau with too few honest cops.As in most Ridley Scott films, American Gangster is peppered with good supporting work. Who would’ve thought that Josh Brolin could be intimidating as a corrupt cop, but here he is, threatening not only Russell but also Denzel, and looking quite menacing doing it. John Ortiz is quite brilliant as Richie Roberts’ partner, and his performance is one of the highlights of the movie. I felt the same about Ruby Dee’s phenomenal work as Lucas’ mother, and she has a few scenes that are so emotionally stirring they stop the film dead in its tracks (I mean that in a good way). Though it’s a small role, I enjoyed Roger Bart’s scene as a rage-spewing US attorney who chews Russell out.The cast also includes RZA, Common, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Hawkes, Ted Levine and, get this, Cuba Gooding, Jr!! Man, I have not seen Cuba in a movie that I would recommend for many, many years. Good work, Cuba!That being said, there were a few things that didn’t make any sense. I still don’t understand who Joe Morton was supposed to playing (the guy with the funny eyebrows and hairpiece), Denzel’s accountant? The whole subplot with Richie’s ex-wife (Carla Gugino) could’ve been dropped and it wouldn’t have hurt the film. Minor quibbles, minor quibbles.American Gangster is brutal, brave and fascinating. It tells a compelling story about trying to find success and happiness in America, and it never looses the audience’s interest. And for a film with an almost 3 hour running time, that’s a neat trick. Also, it’s got an absolutely terrific title.

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