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Review

Washington’s new movie ‘American Gangster’ a masterpiece

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November 8, 2007

Much has been bandied about lately as to why the recent wave of thematically-heavy films have been underperforming at the box office. I suspect the sheer glut of them has something to do with this, but by no means does that make the crime drama “American Gangster” worth passing on in the very least.

Based upon a true story (although shunning away any of the more hackneyed elements that come with that label), “American Gangster” spans from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a Harlem mobster’s dedicated driver/bodyguard, and when his boss kicks the bucket, Frank proceeds to take over his operations in a big way before his rivals come a-callin’.

Tired of seeing middlemen dilute the heroin he sells on the streets, Frank himself flies to Bangkok and strikes a deal, which leaves him with 100 percent pure product, which he makes a fortune off of by selling for half of what his competitors are charging. Frank relishes his success and rises quickly to gangland power, but it’s only a matter of time before the law takes notice.

Enter Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a New Jersey detective with a troubled personal life but intense dedication to his job, who’s made the head of a special task force assigned to take down high-profile figures in the drug trade — with none other than Frank emerging as their first target.

Please don’t let the above summary lead you to believe that “American Gangster” is a generic cops-and-robbers fable. Director Ridley Scott doesn’t spin this into a simplistic, shoot-’em-up crime story (although there is a rousing raid on Frank’s drug den near the end of the film), instead weaving a gritty tale about a drug dealer fulfilling his vision of the American Dream.

Though not above the occasional violent outburst, Frank is cool as a cucumber, running his trade with a smart business sense and knowing just how to keep operations going underneath the watchful eyes of Johnny Law.

Frank’s rise to power is fueled more by basic economics than it is by criminal ambitions, resulting in one hell of a balancing act (being a stern yet likeable guy who’s still a drug pusher at the end of the day) that Washington pulls off perfectly.

Just as compelling as the screen presence that Washington commands is Crowe’s performance as Richie, an honest cop who does everything in his power to bring Frank down while helplessly watching his own life fall to pieces. Frank and Richie are prime examples of what happens when two roles that have been done to death in countless movies are reinvigorated by a pair of actors who are more concerned with creating intriguing characters than with simply checking off a shopping list’s worth of clichés.

Long in length but packing a lightning-fast pace, thin in the plot but brimming with searing emotions, “American Gangster” is a strong, tense and character-driven crime masterpiece — in short, this is one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.

A.J. Hakari is a student at UW-River Falls.