Wednesday, October 31, 2007

An Advance View at the Movies: American Gangster

I got a pass to an advance screening of American Gangster last night. The movie is awesome!!!
I am going to try to give a spoiler-free review of this excellent film.

The movie begins with Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) being the righ-hand man to Harlem crimelord Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, played by veteran actor Clarence Williams III. Fans of 70s TV may remember him as "Linc Hayes" from The Mod Squad. Eventually, Bumpy passes the reins to Lucas. With Bumpy no loner in control, the streets are chaotic, and other gangsters such as Tango (played by Idris Elba) challenge Lucas. Lucas meets the challenge and becomes the No. 1 gangster in Harlem. Lucas also travels to Bangkok and gets connected with a drug supplier over there thanks to his cousin in the military played by the criminally underrated Roger Guenveur Smith). This was an unprecedented move, no African-American gangster had ever been so bold as to cut out the middle men (the Italian mafia). We see how Lucas begins to market his brand of cocaine, "Blue Magic", fights off opposition from cops and opposing criminals such as Nicky Barnes, who was surprisingly played well by Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Denzel is excellent in the film, giving the character just the right balance of ruthlessness and compassion. Russel Crowe is also brilliant as Richie Roberts, the cop who makes it his mission in life to bring Lucas to justice. Crowe's character is extremely honorable on the job, but a lousy husband to his wife (played by Carla Gugino) and not the best father to his son. Chiewetel Ejiofor shines as Huey Lucas, Lucas' loyal but careless brother. Rappers Common and TI also give brief but decent performances as Lucas' brother Turner and his nephew Stevie Lucas, respectively. Joe Morton is also in the film as one of Lucas' confidants. Other standout performances include Josh Brolin as a dirty cop and Ruby Dee as Lucas' mom. She is one of our last living cinematic veterans, so it is always a treat to see her on the screen. Hip-hop veteran Fab 5 Freddy also has a cameo, as does soul singer Anthony Hamilton as, appopriately enough, a singer at Lucas' nightclub.

Frank Lucas was an innovator and trailblazer, albeit in the criminal realm. The movie was a very immoral and twisted African-American history moment. Lucas was very meticulous and made a huge effort to appear inconspicuous, and the way they contrast him with some of the flashier gangsters in Harlem such as Nicky Barnes was a nice storytelling tool. Denzel's Washington's portrayal of Lucas is one of a man walking a tightrope between devoted family man and merciless crimelord. Even family members were not above punishment. Crowe's character is equally complex and troubled. It seems that Roberts is focused solely on fighting crime and finishing law school. His wife, son, and other endeavors are all secondary. Roberts was a very honorable and moral cop whose devotion even made some of his fellow officers think he was insane. RZA of the rap group Wu-Tang Clan also turned in a surprisingly decent performance as a cop on the special task force Roberts assembled to investigate the drug trade in New York and New Jersey.

Bottom line: The film is awesome, it keeps you interested, and it Washington and Crowe deliver Oscar-worthy perfomances. I strongly recommend this film, and I am asking those of you that already have it on bootleg (No need to name names) to at least see a matinee performance of this film. Director Ridley Scott, Crowe, and Washington all need to make room on their trophy chest before award season begins in January. I give American gangsters 5 out of 5 bullets.


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