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Before the DVD release on 8th June
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Tragic 1 Star

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Denzel Washington
Russell Crowe
Josh Brolin
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Carla Gugino
Ted Levine
John Ortiz
Yul Vazquez
Roger Bart.
Ridley Scott.
Steven Zaillian.
Running Time
156 minutes

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American Gangster
Russell and Denzel reteam. Well, it’s better than Virtuosity

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The true story of Frank Lucas (Washington), a ’70s Harlem crime lord who took on the Mafia by importing uncut heroin directly from Thailand, then selling it cheaper. Enter Richie Roberts (Crowe), the one clean cop in a sea of filthy fuzz, assigned to stem the drug flow and put Lucas behind bars.

American Gangster
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It is interesting (and not coincidental) that Ridley Scott’s latest, American Gangster, is opening in the same month that his third feature, Blade Runner, gets a reissue. There are cosmetic similarities. Both take place in distinctive milieus (Los Angeles 2019; Harlem 1971) dominated by bad fashions. Both involve
a subdued cop on the hunt for a more charismatic villain. But marking the differences in such close proximity is instructive about how Scott’s career has developed. The Scott of The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner wallowed in atmosphere, mood and backlight (debatably at the expense of story and character), whereas the Scott of American Gangster puts plot ahead of pictorialism, dwells on relationships not cityscapes and gets on with things in almost documentary style. In theory, it should make him a better filmmaker but, while you would never begrudge Scott’s desire to grow or try new things, you can’t help but wish that Gangster would indulge his prodigious visual talents a little more often.

Scott’s first foray into epic crime territory, after the small-scale con of Matchstick Men, is undeniably enjoyable, yet it never really gets to grips with the full potential of the story. The twin yarns of gangster Lucas and cop Roberts are a template for crime thrillers of the past 30 years, but while it boasts performances by two modern greats, it never adds up to a completely satisfying whole.

Part of the problem here is that, from such rich source material, American Gangster doesn’t tell a story. From the get-go, Zaillian’s screenplay gets stuck in a repetitive rut, and very little, be it narrative threads, character arcs or thematic depth, actually develops. Roberts doesn’t do much detecting to get to Lucas; the latter just reveals himself as a kingpin via a fashion faux pas at a boxing match. Scott and Zaillian want to suggest a symmetry between Lucas and Roberts - that both men are outsiders in their own worlds, driven by specific codes of ethics - but struggle to make the comparison compelling. Scott also shortchanges on the true story’s astonishing coda, which would seem ripe for the Hollywood treatment. And worst of all, he can’t actually pin down what the film is about.

Aside from a few new licks - Roberts’ nifty use of a dead perp
to exit an incendiary crime scene; images of scantily clad chicks bagging up drugs, near nude so they can’t stash the dope; Lucas’ ingenious method of transporting the drugs into the US - very little in the movie feels fresh, re-treading scenes, riffs and imagery from the whole history of crime flicks. There’s the minutiae of police drug squad procedure (The French Connection), a police force besieged by cops on the take (the films of Sidney Lumet, especially Serpico) and the gangster as kind family man (The Godfather - Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lucas’ dim brother comes across as a blinged-up Fredo). Even the music sounds second hand (who can hear Across 110th Street and not recall Jackie Brown?), Scott not quite having the affection for tunes of the era to turn up something different.

To his credit, Scott doesn’t OD on the ’70s-ness of Gangster; a throwaway allusion to the new-fangled microwave is about it. Yet all this familiarity doesn’t breed complete contempt. American Gangster’s string of crime movie staples - drive-bys; Mafia meetings (all hail Armand Assante!); cops pinning up pictures of suspects on boards and drinking coffee; wire-wearing snitches - is served up with enough verve to engage. But the film’s strengths unquestionably lie in the double-header of Washington and Crowe. After playing a gladiator, sailor, maths genius and boxer (we’ll skip over A Good Year), it’s good to see Crowe playing something approaching a regular Joe - slightly overweight and struggling to keep his principles when treated as a pariah. That Roberts is the only straight cop in a force full of corruption is a nice role-reversal, and Crowe gives Roberts a gravitas and believability he in all probability didn’t have on the page.

Despite Crowe’s sterling efforts, though, this is Washington’s show. Channelling some of the intensity and aggression he brought to Training Day but tempering it with touches of charm and class, Washington effortlessly stumps up menace, smarts and attitude. In one breathless moment he leaves his brothers in a diner, walks across the street, shoots a rival in the face, and calmly returns to his food. American Gangster is very good at this - little violences, sporadic shootings and ferocious fistfights that end as quickly as they erupt - and Washington delivers it with maximum impact. But you also swallow him as a devoted husband, concerned uncle (his nephew wants to follow his lead into crime) and urbane businessman. There is a fascinating scene in which Lucas berates a rival mobster (Cuba Gooding Jr.) for selling inferior narcotics under the same Blue Magic banner as Lucas’ own heroin: it is surely a sign of the times when a gangster flick features a discussion on the merits of branding.

For a film fuelled by so much testosterone, some of the best moments involve the men being dressed down by women. Lucas’ run in with his proud mother (Ruby Dee) is one of the very few times anyone actually stands up to him. Equally good is Roberts’ courtroom tussle with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) over custody of their kid, who floors the cop with a terrific character dissection. In some ways, these scenes register stronger than The Obligatory Washington/Crowe Face Off. In a Pacino-De Niro-Heat stylee, the pair have only one scene together - look out for the ways both actors use a coffee cup to subtly delineate who has the upper hand in the conversation - but it doesn’t have the oomph or mythic resonances that the moment requires.

Approaching the edginess that marked Black Hawk Down, Scott splits his style in two; a spare, sparse look for Roberts, mostly grey-grim tones and handheld urgency, and a more colourful, stately approach for Lucas. It’s an apt decision but disheartening. Scott seems to take his visual sense from TV’s The Wire, and there is something disappointing in that unparalleled visual imagination being dulled down to a small-screen aesthetic. Some imaginations are too big to be contained within HBO house style.

An entertaining romp through familiar cop-and-crim cat-and-mousery, bolstered by strong star turns from Washington and Crowe. Still, it has neither the intelligence nor the grip to jump from the merely good to the truly great.

Reviewed by Ian Freer

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for American Gangster
Empire Star Rating

Another damnation with faint praise...

...for one of the all-time great filmmakers. Perhaps the only real flaw in this film is that it doesn't sufficiently demonstrate the damage Lucas's drugs empire does to the people of his fiefdom; in fact, the handful of scenes showing people OD'ing at Thanksgiving could be interpreted as a result of Cuba Gooding Jnr's messing with the product. But then Ridley Scott usually trusts the audience to have the intelligence to draw those conclusions themselves. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Belisarius0365 at 20:39, 24 September 2014 | Report This Post

American Gangster Review

American Gangster is a gritty and entertaining throwback to classic gangster films, with its lead performers firing on all cylinders. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by the film man at 11:08, 28 December 2011 | Report This Post

American Gangster Reciew

American Gangster is a gritty and entertaining throwback to classic gangster films, with its lead performers firing on all cylinders. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by the film man at 11:07, 28 December 2011 | Report This Post

Been meaning to watch this for ages but it's just one of those movies that I don't actively seek out. Very average, nothing at all special about it at all, good performances from both Washington and  Crowe. It's watchable but that about all I can really say. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by lukejt02 at 22:01, 28 March 2011 | Report This Post


I honestly can't see anything wrong with this film, ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by the film man at 19:31, 08 March 2011 | Report This Post

Empire, Your Wrong

Great acting, great story, great film. End Of ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by linkinpython at 00:25, 01 January 2011 | Report This Post

OK but I felt dirty afterwards

This was good in many ways but drugs are so not glamourous and it was a very seedy film. Would recommend to see once but once only. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by kristyw at 22:20, 06 February 2010 | Report This Post

Watched today: tp://]American Gangsteridley Scott`s take on the based on a true story- tale of self-made crime lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who`ll do anything to take get the much-needed drugs, and the police man chasing him (Russel Crowe). Even though the pace of the story in the beginning, the first 60 minutes, isn`t really high you do have to keep your attention focused. A lot of characters come and go and you don`t get a real feeling with the leed ch... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by TheGodfather at 22:33, 15 September 2009 | Report This Post

Poor, dull.......and most notably dissappointing.

A cliche, boring and overly long gangster movie. I think that Ridley Scott is a brilliant director, one of my favourites, and thus I was very dissappointed by 'American Gangster.' Given the director and the cast list, I was expecting it to be a really well done, innovative film.....with something that made it different from your average, run of the mill gangster films that appear to be churned out, with the same revisted plots and characters again and again. This film failed to keep my interest... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by WhiteRabbit23 at 14:22, 10 August 2009 | Report This Post

This film got largely mixed reviews on its release but give it time. It will soon be rediscovered as the masterpiece it truly is. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Tindum at 13:31, 28 February 2009 | Report This Post

This film got largely mixed reviews on its release but give it time. It will soon be rediscovered as the masterpiece it truly is. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Tindum at 13:31, 28 February 2009 | Report This Post

It's fantastic, a true return to form for Ridley Scott after his abysmal last couple of films. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by willchadwick at 18:57, 22 November 2008 | Report This Post

American Gangster

A great example of Hollywood filmmaking, but take the claim that it's "based on a true story" with a very big pinch of salt. Ridley Scott is an excellent director and Brian Grazer is an excellent producer, but I don't think either of them would let facts get in the way of telling a good story. For much of the film Richie Roberts is involved in a custody battle for his son, but in real life he didn't even have a kid! And the 'facts' about the time Frank Lucas served in prison that come ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Swifty170 at 00:36, 19 November 2008 | Report This Post

Great old-stylish entertainment.

Climate. Directing. Acting. Screenplay. Climate. 5/5 ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by ARmy2510 at 15:51, 28 October 2008 | Report This Post

Great film. Watched the extended version the other day and thought the new ending stank of bum. Anyone agree? ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by stephenhickman2 at 20:20, 11 July 2008 | Report This Post


L: El Becks Agree totally with Moth and Gunstar; very disappointing film, and could not help but think, as the closing credits rolled, e postscript that Richie Roberts subsequently left the Force and became a lawyer and the first person he represented was Frank Lucas was a much more interesting story; the story the film should have covered.  I am not asking Scott to do a sequel. sp; I agree, that got my interest twitching, that would indeed be a good movie. As to American Gangs... More

Posted by Newander at 12:09, 09 May 2008 | Report This Post


Agree totally with Moth and Gunstar; very disappointing film, and could not help but think, as the closing credits rolled, that the postscript that Richie Roberts subsequently left the Force and became a lawyer and the first person he represented was Frank Lucas was a much more interesting story; the story the film should have covered.  And no, I am not asking Scott to do a sequel. ... More

Posted by El Becks at 13:08, 20 April 2008 | Report This Post


100's of movies have been there and done this, 87% of them better. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by gunstar at 23:51, 29 March 2008 | Report This Post

RE: American Gangster

A patchy, forgettable thriller which pales in comparison to other superior efforts covering similar ground, such as Serpico, The French Connection and TV's The Wire. Washington and Crowe are both fine in their roles but the lack of dynamic interaction between the two is a disappointment. Once again Ridley Scott proves unable to fashion a compelling story on a large scale, resulting in an uneven and poorly paced movie. A pity, because the fascinating true-life events it's based upon de... More

Posted by MOTH at 16:25, 26 March 2008 | Report This Post

RE: American Gangster

The best movie I've seen that's come out of the 00's. Brilliant direction, great acting, interesting subject matter and also a very graphic depiction of the rise and subsequent fall of druglord Frank Lucas. Well worth the 3 hours of your time 5 stars or 9.5/10 ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by scarface666brooksy!! at 04:29, 26 March 2008 | Report This Post

First of im going to say that Josh Brolin, Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all amazing in this film. I know some may disagree but in my opinion this film hit the spot, and i was intrigued from start to finish. The extended finale on the DVD was worth watching as well. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Perrettyboy at 19:24, 22 March 2008 | Report This Post

RE: American Gangster

s968's New York, Frank Lucas (Washington) becomes the first black kingpin to go up against the American mafia, only to be taken down by Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe). /b] Hollywood's most respected British filmmaker, Sir Ridley Scott is a director who knows how to create worlds from the past and the future, such as unner]Gladiatorhen it comes to modern films, like ne]Hannibalre nothing more than just visual pieces. Reuniting with Russell 'Maximus' Crowe, Scott introduces his fourth ma... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by R W at 16:42, 22 March 2008 | Report This Post

American Gangster.

A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. Great Movie. I can't believe that Empire only gave it 3 stars. You've got to buy the Collector's Edition. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by nc_jj at 23:02, 19 March 2008 | Report This Post

Average Gangster Flick

I have to agree with Empire's three star review - this was a solid but uninspired effort by Ridley Scott and I was expecting a bit more from a gangster movie directed by him. One of the biggest problems was Denzel Washington whose acting was almost completely expressionless/ emotionless.   Maybe other people would look upon it as a cool performance but De Niro/ Pacino as the Corleones are what I consider cool - Washington was borderline autistic.   I look... More

Posted by Fluke Skywalker at 18:42, 19 March 2008 | Report This Post

Brilliant, honest crime--true life of a gangster

Excellent film. Amazing performances, thoughtful script that builds flawed but real characters--logical and thought provoking. Great slice of life about the corruption of the Vietnam Era. Wonderful film that doesn't glorify the gangster but makes him real and shows what will happen to him eventually. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by lynnshep at 20:43, 17 March 2008 | Report This Post

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