Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.



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American Gangster

Film #357


In 1970s America, a detective works to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas, a heroin kingpin from Manhattan, who is smuggling the drug into the country from the Far East.

Year 1, Day 357

BEFORE: Russell Crowe returns again along with Denzel Washington for another true story, this one being in the crime genre. American Gangster is quite an epic clocking in at 157 minutes (the longest film in the marathon since Les Miserables way back in January, also starring Crowe), but it’s the weekend so I don’t have to worry about waking up early to go to work tomorrow.

AFTER: American Gangster was released in 2007 following many that came in the crime genre before it. Films like The Godfather, Scarface, Serpico, and Training Day just to name a few. And yet, American Gangster can hold its own and makes a name for itself. This isn’t just a rehash of tropes or stereotypes of mobsters, although there certainly are similarities. In many ways it takes pre-existing ideas and subverts them to create something engrossing and unique.

In terms of story, it’s not as complex or all-encompassing as say, The Godfather, but the simplicity is beneficial. There is Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who heads up the newly established narcotics force. The investigations involve many stakeouts and cork boards littered with head shots of all the players in the drug trade. One of which is Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) who aspires to create his own organization and work only for himself. He’s both clever and ruthless with how he handles the business, his rivals, and the police investigation. Between the two sides (and many others that come and go throughout the film) you get suspense and a build up of tension. A raid on Lucas is inevitable and is one of the most exciting parts of the film. It feels like a scene out of 24 with adrenaline coursing through your veins, living on each moment waiting to see what will happen next. But the majority of the film - everything leading up to the raid (I refuse to call that a spoiler; if you don’t know or thing a raid will happen you must be expecting a different film) - also grabs your attention. Yes it may seem quite slow, but the simplicity allows a greater connection with what does occur compared to a confused infatuation with a bunch of stuff going through your mind.

One of the strengths of the film is not abiding by traditional stereotypes and often goes against them. Lucas is a black man and it shocks many - cops and criminals alike - that he’s able to create something that’s above the Italians, those more synonymous with mobs. The interaction between Lucas and those beneath him, or between Roberts and his colleagues, is much more free than you’d expect. As one who often wants films to take a bold risk (like with Star Trek Into Darkness and its ending), I was quite pleased with American Gangster. There were a handful of times where the solution to a problem was extreme; perhaps hyperbolic, but definitely shocking.

One of the downsides to the film deals with both of the above paragraphs. For the most part, the simplicity of the story and the boldness of the film works. But other times, it can be completely the opposite: unnecessarily complicated and too cautious. The best way to show this is list a whole bunch of examples. There is Roberts fighting for custody of his child (which is apparently not what happened in real life), the involvement of the Italian families, Detective Trupo’s (Josh Brolin) demands of Lucas, and whatever Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is doing. Most of these examples are minor in that they take up very little screen time, but all combined it’s not an insignificant chunk. Each of these examples seems to be tacked on to cover the film’s tracks but none of them are executed half as well as the main story.

I find it incredible that after all these years, there are still gangster films being made based on true stories. Just how many stories are out there and how do they continue to bring entertainment. American Gangster is just another added to that list, and while it has its fair share of throwaway plot points, it remains engrossing and surprisingly fresh. Fans of the genre should definitely get around to seeing American Gangster, regardless of how many you’ve seen previously - I’m sure you’ll find something new and exciting waiting for you here.

RATING: 4 out of 5