Ridley Scott’s American Gangster: A Review by Nate Hill

  

Ridley Scott’s vast, intricate crime epic American Gangster is one of the director’s finest achievement in film to this day. It’s sprawling in nature, expansive in scope but never chaotic or muddled. It always maintains a laser focus on its characters and story, thumping along at a rhythmic pace which swells and falls to the time of one of the most iconic stories in true crime. It’s Scott’s Heat, a titanic tale of cop vs. criminal in which neither are the villain or hero, but simply men adhering to rigid, ruthless principles moulded by the environments they have grown up in. Both men have an intense set of morals completely different from the other, yet equally as captivating. Russell Crowe is a troubled bruiser as Detective Richie Roberts, a cop so determined to convince himself of his own upstanding nature that he won’t take any illicit payoff in any amount or context. In contrast, every other aspect of his life is a shambling mess. Denzel Washington is quiet fury as Frank Lucas, an enterprising gangster and drug smuggler who rides the tidal wave of capitalism like there’s no tomorrow, flooding the streets of Harlem with pure heroin directly from the southeast Asian source, and rising swiftly to the peak of underworld infamy. The two are on an inevitable collision course, two juggernauts with different empires backing them who will stop at nothing. Lucas believes himself to be untouchable, shirking the flashy, preening nature of his peers and remaining out of the limelight, until cunning Roberts catches onto him. The rough and tumble world of New York in the 60’s and 70’s is lovingly brought to life by Scott, his cast and crew who go to impressive lengths in order to bring us that grit, realism and specific anthropological aura of another time, another setting. Speaking of cast, this has to be one of the most rip roaring collection of actors ever assembled, even to rival that of Heat itself. In Richie’s corner there is senior Detective Lou Toback (a sly Ted Levine, perpetuating the vague Michael Mann vibe even further), a scummy colleague (Yul Vasquez), and an off the books team of gangbusters including John Ortiz, John Hawkes and a mumbling RZA. He also clashes with his bitter ex wife (Carla Gugino) in an ugly custody battle for their young son. Over on Frank’s side of the hill are his huge extended family including Common, TI, Chiwetel Ejfor and Ruby Dee in one of the film’s finest performances as his strong willed, passionate mother, one of the only people who could talk sense into him and keep the animal inside at bay. Lymari Nadal is great as his bombshell Puerto Rican wife as well. His rivals include superfly-esque Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and a brief, hostile turn from Idris Elba. He also deals with the Italian mafia, personified by a hammy Armand Assante, an earnest Jon Polito and a slimy Ritchie Coster. One of the best performances of the film comes from Josh Brolin as positively evil corrupt narcotics detective Trupo, threatening everything that moves with his grease slick hair, porno moustache and silky, dangerous tone. As if that army of talent wasn’t enough, there’s also work from Kevin Corrigan, Joe Morton, Clarence Williams III in a powerful turn as an ageing Bumpy Johnson, and a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Norman Reedus as well. What. A. Cast. The whole thing rests on Crowe and Washington, though, and both are like Olympian titans of crime and conflict, sweeping up everyone around them in a whirlwind of explosive violence, shifting alliances and the booming arrival of capitalism giving the American people in every walk of life a defibrillator jolt of economic change, laying the foundation for the world we live in today, one brick, one bullet, one business deal at a time. Scott achieves legendary heights with this one, a crime film for the ages that one can always revisit to see not how one hero cop took down a villainous drug lord, but how the forces which inexorably bind humans to various fates in accordance with their decisions swept up two extraordinary yet mortal men into historic infamy. In a word: Epic.

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