Student Voice


July 12, 2024


Washington's new movie 'American Gangster' a masterpiece

November 8, 2007

Our culture is changing; audiences have replaced the corny Westerns of yesteryear with grimy and graphic fables of a new frontier.

This frontier fights over pills and powder instead of gold and silver; its battles are fought on the streets of our metropolitan cities. Bloodthirsty savages have been replaced by coked-out junkies and the cowboys-made-cops sell for profit the very smack they confiscate.  Ridley Scott blazes his own trail across this dirty frontier with “American Gangster,” a gritty look at New York’s drug obsession viewed through the eyes of its junkies and its dealers.

Following the true story of, but taking poetic license with, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the nobody driver/bodyguard and protégé of drug kingpin “Bumpy” Johnson. Learning all he could from Bumpy and the Sicilians he did business with, Lucas inherited the ailing empire with a glisten in his eye for change. 

Well aware of the growing drug problem the military was facing in Vietnam and armed with an entrepreneurial sense of street wise economics, Lucas visited Thailand to hammer out a deal to buy heroin directly from the Asian market and ship that supply to the states in the coffins of U.S. soldiers. This art of cutting out the middleman allowed Lucas to sell a pure, undiluted product at half the cost as the competition.

The perfect antithesis to Lucas, Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) enters as the good in the face of limitless evil. Constantly ridiculed for turning in a bust of $1 million in unmarked bills instead of pocketing it, Roberts’ stubbornness for justice lands him the job of leading a newly formed narcotics task force. Feeling his way up the food chain, Roberts aims at Lucas and the two engage in an instinctual game of survival. Although the pair doesn’t meet until the taught climax, their lust for the other’s demise is palpable nonetheless.

Crowe and Washington each become possessed by their roles, losing themselves to their character. The two travel down their carefully structured parallels and breathe much needed life into character classes we’ve seen too many times before.

But what adds more dramatic punch is the incongruent lifestyles each of the men live around their actions. Lucas weaves a veil of decency to become the wolf in sheep’s clothing, believing he is chasing the American Dream as he enslaves a city at needlepoint. Roberts upholds the law and crusades against corruption even as his personal life is reduced to ruin. Roberts is denied happiness while Lucas profits $1 million a day.

A simple premise of good vs. evil is afforded even more complexity with an undertone of racial tensions; the white cop crusades against the black villain.

Director Scott composes his symphony of morality and deceit to a quiet thunder. No scene is wasted as each chimes in its own tune, all building upon each other, towards a crescendo not grandiose in spectacle but in its deliberate submission.

“American Gangster” is a modern epic. It is a seductive expose, a wildly engrossing reinvention of a tired cops/druggies formula. Scott is inducted into the elite ranks of Coppola and Scorcese as “American Gangster” enters the pantheon of great American crime films alongside “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas.”

Ken Weigend is an alumnus of UW-River Falls. He was editor of the Student Voice during spring semester 2010.