American Gangster

Denzel does it again. Seriously. I wasn’t sure I was going to like this one — I’m not really a Russell Crowe fan, for one thing, gangster movies aren’t really all that interesting to me in general, and it’s two hours and 37 minutes long besides. But it didn’t feel nearly that long (well, except for my backside getting sore), it isn’t quite a traditional gangster movie, and while I still don’t think Russell Crowe’s anyone I’d want to meet, he turns in a good acting job.
He’d have to be good to compare with Denzel, of course, though on the other hand, they don’t have many scenes together. For most of the film, you’re watching two movies. Denzel is Frank Lucas, a North Carolina boy who ended up in New York as driver and bodyguard to a Harlem crime boss. When the boss dies, every hood around tries to step into his shoes — but it’s Frank who succeeds. He learns a lesson from the big discount chain stores (which I think were probably pretty new in 1968, when the movie starts), and cuts out the middleman.
He travels to Bangkok, finds the guy who runs the poppy fields where the heroin comes from, and cuts a deal with him directly. Now Frank can afford to sell nearly pure heroin, and undercut all the other dealers. The other dealers don’t like this, of course, but after Frank shoots one of them in the head in broad daylight on a busy sidewalk, they don’t complain very much. That’s the really weird thing about this movie — Denzel’s kind of… evil. I mean, the first scene shows him setting a man on fire. He smacks his own brother’s head into a car window repeatedly. He’s a hateful, bad-tempered man. But somehow you don’t mind as much as you should.

One of the few times Denzel and Russell actually share the screen, so look closely.

In the other movie, Russell Crowe is cop-turning-lawyer Richie Roberts. It seems he’s one of about eight non-crooked cops in New Jersey. While following a bookie, he and his partner discover a huge pile of cash — $987,000, to be exact. But his partner doesn’t want to turn it in, because then all the other cops, who apparently routinely keep whatever money they find on the job, won’t trust them anymore. Richie turns it in anyway, and sure enough, the next time he calls in for backup in the Projects, there are mysteriously no units in the vicinity. I mean, really — if there aren’t cops there, what in the world are they all doing? I hope police forces have changed a lot since the sixties. Even the state district attorney uses some nasty racial slurs.
Anyway, because there are only eight honest cops, they all get put into the same unit — a new federally organized anti-drug task force. They don’t bother with street pushers or small amounts of drugs; they only want the suppliers and big bosses. So from that point, you know Russell and Denzel are fated to collide, but it’s still a lot of fun to watch it happening.
The rest of the cast is great. There’s Ruby Dee (“The Stand”) as Mamma Lucas; Josh Brolin doing a frighteningly good job as the King of the Crooked Cops; and my old friend Idris Elba (28 Weeks Later, The Reaping) in an unfortunately small part. I suspect some of his lines hit the cutting room floor, and probably the same is true of poor Cuba Gooding, Jr., who gets one substantial scene where he whines and complains, and spends the rest of the film appearing in the background now and then. It’s a fun scene, though — Frank compares his brand of heroin, Blue Magic, to Pepsi and General Mills in terms of brand recognition. I wonder if companies actually pay for that kind of product placement…?
The point is, it’s a good film. Four and a quarter idols of good, in fact. I’m still thinking about the last scene, which manages to make a huge impact without even any dialogue. It does that in a few places, actually, and I think those are the scenes that are going to stick the most, for better or worse. Most of those scenes aren’t for the squeamish, unsurprisingly, but they’re really powerful. And in spite of his almost offhand cruelty, you never quite give up on Frank, which might easily have happened with any other actor. At least he’s nice to his mother… though personally, I’d be afraid not to be nice to Ruby Dee.