American Gangster (2007)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejoifor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, American Gangster

First he gave us the ultimate historical fencing film. Then he gave us the ultimate space horror. Next he gave us the ultimate sci-fi dystopian vision, the ultimate girl power chick flick and the ultimate sword and sandal epic. And now director Ridley Scott gives us the ultimate 1970s blaxploitation New York gangster flick.

Phew!

But fuggedabout the Mafia: the antihero of Scott's movie is no Corleone or Soprano but a black man from Harlem, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who beats the Italians at their own drugs game by buying pure heroin from Vietnam and employing US forces to ship it into the country.

So while American Gangster may owe a debt to Coppola and Scorsese so huge they'll need to call in the heavies to collect, it has a style and agenda all of its own. For a start, it isn't actually terribly stylish. Shot in a gritty, straightforward manner, the camera work never draws attention to itself. There's no cool slow-mo or frenetic choppy-cut action: the cinematography is simply a vehicle to drive us straight to the heart of the story, and the scenes of violence are short, sharp and shocking, far removed from the prolonged gory excesses of The Departed, say.

Likewise, Lucas is not your usual highflying gangster antihero. A sober, intelligent, hard working and resourceful man who loves his mum and takes good care of his family, on paper he seems a lot more respectable and likeable than the dogged detective on his tale, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who hangs out with criminals, shags anything in a skirt and ignores his small son, yet is renowned as the only honest cop on the force, the man who found a million dollars in the trunk of a car and handed it in.

Russell Crowe as Detective Richie Roberts in Ridley Scott's American Gangster

And yet Lucas is not an aspirational role model: close-lipped, paranoid and subject to sudden terrifying bouts of violence, he rarely seems to have any fun. Even his happy family get together at Thanksgiving is juxtaposed with ghastly scenes of desperate junkies collapsing in grimy bathrooms – the real victims of his success.

Because, unlike Goodfellas or Casino, this is a deliberately unglamorous film that refuses to let us forget the mundane misery caused by organised crime. The well-chosen '70s tunes in the background may echo the prescient soundtrack of a Scorsese movie, but visually, the look is very different. Our characters may occasionally fling on the bling, but Lucas himself remains deliberately restrained, berating his brother for drawing attention to himself in his superfly shiny suit – and rightly so, for a flashy fur coat he sports to please his girlfriend proves to be Lucas's downfall, bringing him to the attention of the sleazy New York drug squad.

For in the end, the real villain of the piece is not Lucas at all but the corruption that infects the NY police department and allows the drug trade to flourish, feeding off it as greedily as any of wiseguy. And when Lucas refuses to play the cops' game (instead of passing chief narc Detective Trupo a hefty bung, he leaves a turkey on his doorstep and blows up his car) he earns Roberts' reluctant respect.

Harsh, uncompromising and gritty, American Gangster is an engrossing and eye-opening experience featuring finely tuned performances from the ever-splendid Denzel Washington, whose reserved, deliberately understated performance is about as far removed from Marlon Brando or Robert DeNiro as you can get, and Russell Crowe, on form as the detective who proves to be the nemesis of both Lucas and the entire New York police department.

Which just goes to show that on the streets of New York, occasionally someone will hear you scream.

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