Great Scott: Gangster is gripping

2007-12-10 00:00

AS Oscars season approaches, Ridley Scott’s name inevitably arises with a fresh new blockbuster to blow everyone away.

American Gangster, though, is no Gladiator. It won’t gross as much at the box office (though, of course, it won’t do too badly either) but it is probably Scott’s best movie as a director, and easily one of the best of the year.

Except for a small dose right at the end, the film is devoid of the sentimentality that has been a feature of Scott’s previous films. It still has massive entertainment value, with a riveting story told through an excellent cast, visually spectacular cinematography, and a sweeping canvas that ranges from a superbly recreated 1960s and ’70s Harlem to the war-torn jungles of south-east Asia.

Harlem is grimy and poor, and danger lurks everywhere. The Vietnam war and socio-economic conditions have contributed to an escalation of smack addiction and junkies are on every corner.

Against this background we are told the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), an unassuming driver, bodyguard and killer for a Harlem crime lord who fills the void left by his boss’s death by establishing a heroin empire in Jersey.

Lucas cuts out the middleman and heads straight for the source — the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-Chek’s defeated army, who have escaped to the jungles of south-east Asia. With his business ethic and low profile, he quickly rises above the mafia in the New York drug dealing scene.

Pitted against Lucas is detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an outcast because he is an honest cop in the otherwise utterly corrupt NYPD of the 1970s.

Like Lucas, Roberts is set apart from those around him because he is meticulous and ethical.

There are some similarities to Gladiator. Scott certainly does not shy away from telling the juggernaut stories. There is a more authentic feel to this film, though, and Scott’s time machine really does feel like it has transported you back three-and-a-half decades.

The cast includes established actors such as Armand Assante and Cuba Gooding Junior, finally realising the potential he showed in Jerry Maguire. There are also plenty of rising stars, including Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things), Lymari Nadal and John Hawkes (Me and You and Everyone We Know).

All are superb, though only Josh Brolin, in his sinister portrayal of a kingpin rogue cop, comes close to matching the Oscar-potential performances of Washington and Crowe.

Washington, as he showed in Training Day, is really good when he is bad.

The film, though, makes no judgments on Lucas’s character, a Robin Hood-like Harlem celebrity who was also responsible for unquantifiable death and misery.

The film was a toss-up between four and a five stars, but finding little fault with it, I had to give it five.

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