Wednesday, 23 January 2008
The gangster genre is one of the most time-tested there is in movies, and while American Gangster might be based on a true story, it's sticks to the formula straight down the line: when Harlem mob boss Bumpy Johnson keels over in the mid 1960s, his driver Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) decides to follow in his bosses footsteps. After the usual combination of business smarts and murder takes him to the top, he figures out that the real money's in drugs. With the Vietnam war raging there's plenty of people going to and from the place where they grow the drugs, and soon the Mafia is coming to him to ask for a piece of his drug trade. Meanwhile Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe), AKA the most honest cop in New York, is put in charge of a anti-drugs taskforce designed to take down the Mr Bigs of the thriving trade. But with Lucas keeping a low profile and with his family making up his trusted lieutenants, Roberts’ has his work cut out just finding him, let alone taking him down. All the ingredients are here for a truly epic film: Washington is perfect as a businessman with a heart of steel, and Crowe's not far behind as a cop so driven everything else - common sense, self-preservation, even his family - gets left behind. Director Ridley Scott keeps a tight rein on his sprawling story, keeping the focus firmly on these two men and giving Washington and Crowe room to explore their characters (who don't actually meet until close to the film's end). But what's missing from this film is any kind of moral judgement - we might see people dying from Lucas' drugs but there's never any sense that he's a bad man for doing what he does. Other gangster movies were fuelled by this tension: whether it's Scarface or Goodfellas, the gangsters knew what they were doing was wrong and they didn't care. Without that sense of transgression this is just a movie about doing business.
Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #419)