‘American Gangster’ movie review: Ridley Scott’s near-masterpiece


Ridley Scott´s crime epic American Gangster comes so close to becoming a masterpiece that one can almost taste it through the multiple allusions to Scarface, Heat, and other classics.

But director Scott has shaped this true-story tale to the larger-than-life structure of a Hollywood epic; when the reality of the story finally kicks in towards the end, it´s more anticlimactic than one would wish for. That ending: it´s ironic – and all too real – that this is what has become of the titular American Gangster.

Compare it to the essential Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930´s, with Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson meeting their fates in a hail of gunfire. That´s the film that Scott wanted to make here; the reality of the story almost seems to have gotten in the way.

Denzel Washington stars as real-life crimelord Frank Lucas, who starts out in the movie as famed Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson´s driver. When Bumpy dies, Lucas sets out to take over the New York; not by force, as some of his competitors attempt to do, but through smart enterprising – ignoring the fact that he´s a drug lord, most entrepreneurs could learn a lot from Lucas´ story.

On the other side of the coin, we have honest cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) – so honest he turns in a million in found drug money, even through it would´ve been easier for all concerned had he kept it – who vows to bring down the new drug kingpin in Harlem, who´s been offering superior product at discounted prices. The first step is finding him, however; part of Lucas´ strategy is keeping such a low profile that he remains invisible to Roberts and his team for much of the film.

Washington and Crowe are both solid, and respectably understated, in their roles; their characters are somewhat shallowly written, however, and best serve as pawns in the elaborate story – subplots involving Lucas´ wife and family and Roberts´ custody battle are less compelling than the heart of the film.

Josh Brolin nearly steals the show as a corrupt Jersey cop who comes into conflict with both Roberts and Lucas; it´s a bit of a flashy role, yes, but Brolin delivers the sleaze with gusto (as an aside – what an incredible year for Brolin, who has established himself as a star with featured roles in this, No Country for Old MenIn the Valley of Elah, and Grindhouse).

Supporting cast is uniformly excellent, though with such a large collection of actors, few get a chance to shine. Chiwetel Ejiofor, in particular, feels wasted as Lucas´ brother and right-hand man, while more exuberant personalities (Cuba Gooding Jr., Roger Bart) verge on becoming distractions in scene-stealing cameos.

While it´s absolutely compelling for three-fourths of the film, Steven Zallian´s script – or rather, the true story of Frank Lucas – leads director Scott astray, and we´re left with an epic that leaves us wanting. But what an almost – and what a story.

If only Lucas’ tale ended differently, or Zallian and Scott let themselves rewrite history, rather than throwing their final punches with some dreaded end scrawl before the closing credits.

American Gangster


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *