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American Gangster

Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas in American Gangster

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

IN 1970S Harlem, a career criminal named Frank Lucas became one of the biggest crime lords in American history by cutting out the Mafia and importing pure heroin from Vietnam in the body bags of dead US soldiers. It was an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact he was a man of colour.

Richie Roberts, meanwhile, was a law-abiding cop whose determination to avoid corruption placed him at the head of a special investigations unit set up to combat drugs in the city. It was a role that would eventually lead to him bringing down Lucas.

This compelling true story is brought to vivid life in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, a powerhouse movie in every sense of the word that reunites two of contemporary cinemas true heavyweight stars – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe – for the first time since, erm, Virtuosity.

Incredibly, Scott is the third director to have attempted to bring the tale to the big screen (after Terry George and Antoine Fuqua both failed) but there’s arguably no better man for the job. The director’s undisputed visual style ensures that the look and feel of the era is captured perfectly, from the fashions and music right down to the grit and violence of life on the street.

Yet crucially, Scott doesn’t allow the style to overtake the substance and allows a truly first-rate cast to really make their mark. It’s where American Gangster really succeeds.

This is a serious movie in every sense of the word – one that evokes memories of the classic thrillers of the ’70s such as Serpico, The French Connection and The Godfather while maintaining a distinct identity of its own.

The action is hard, fast and brutally realistic but never feels as though Scott’s camera is lingering for any cheap thrills. Rather, the violence is a product of its environment, a necessary evil practised by men who’ve been raised not to give an inch.

Washington brings his trademark intensity to the role of Lucas, exuding authority and menace, as well as a passionate love and respect for his family. It’s a role that enables him to embrace the best traits of his own past characters from films like Training Day and Man On Fire with the gravitas of a Pacino or De Niro.

But he’s matched by Crowe, whose rugged but honest cop is just as driven in his own way, despite struggling with debt, self-doubt and a philandering way. His struggling cop offers an intriguing contrast to Lucas’ rich flamboyance and lends the film some truly great layers.

Come their inevitable confrontation, you’ll be hard-pushed to find a more exhilarating meeting of acting stalwarts this side of Heat, especially since the scene in question takes place over a cup of coffee.

And, like all the best gangster sagas, the quality extends throughout the support cast, with the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Frank’s weaker brother, Josh Brolin, as a corrupt detective, and John Hawkes, as Roberts’ loyal partner really standing out.

The few criticisms surrounding American Gangster are so small they’re virtually insignificant. Early on, for instance, the film feels slightly confused as Scott struggles to bring the multiple plot strands together, while the odd supporting player feels under-used (Cuba Gooding Jnr’s rival dealer in particular). And there’s even a nagging sense that there’s more to the story that’s been left out, particularly during the latter third of proceedings (so don’t bet against a director’s cut somewhere down the line).

But in every respect that counts this is a magnificent achievement that truly does justice to the talents of the people involved – both real (in the case of Lucas and Roberts) and the actors who portray them. Go and see it at the earliest opportunity.

Certificate: 18
Running time: 2hr 36mins
UK DVD Release: March 10, 2008