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Reviews
STAR RATINGS EXPLAINED
Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

POSTER ART
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FILM DETAILS
Certificate
18
Cast
Denzel Washington
Russell Crowe
Josh Brolin
Chiwetel Ejiofor
Carla Gugino
Common
T I
RZA
Ted Levine
John Ortiz
Yul Vazquez
Roger Bart.
Directors
Ridley Scott.
Screenwriters
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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Plot
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.


Review
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.


Verdict
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

RE: American gangster

I enjoyed this. I bought it on DVD yesterday so had the choice of watching the original cinema release or the extended version (an extra 30 mins or so). Naturally I went for more movie for my money.   Did Russell Crowe have to put on weight for this movie or is he just getting a little lardy as the years pass? ... More

Posted by Diggler at 14:27, 15 March 2008 | Report This Post


Was ok.

A bit underwhelming overall. The final picture looks like a snapshot from a buddy-cop movie. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by tallaght24 at 15:11, 13 March 2008 | Report This Post


Empire is spot on for once...

3 stars for this is correct. It is not the modern masterpiece the hype suggests, this feels like a solid replica of a Sidney Lumet film without the characterisation and aftertaste. I am glad that Scott has toned down his editing though, he ruined a good year with that choppy MTV style he used. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by markymark123 at 21:32, 12 March 2008 | Report This Post


Extended!!! Bring it On!!

Just thought I'd say this is one hell of a film and I'm utterly baffled as to how you can give a film like this 3 stars when you gave the utter rubbish that was Jumper the same rating. A truly amazing vision and a welcome return of serious film (Good Year was a little boring) from Ridley Scott. Proof that he is one of the greatest directors of our time. My only real concern was the ending and the way it seemed rushed, I am utterly over the moon that they have released an extended version with an... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Calcifer at 23:56, 11 March 2008 | Report This Post


extended?! what did they miss?

yeah this film is really good, but surely they are joking when they are releasing an extended version!? the film is so bloated already. they should have learnt lessons from spiderman 3! ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by clarkeycats at 20:41, 11 March 2008 | Report This Post


RE: authentic?

L: homersimpson_esq L: Rumbaabaa Can anyone tell me whether the first half hour or so of this film is in black and white? as someone been watching naughty copies of the film...? /quote] I would have if the first half hour wasn't in dodgy black and white... ... More

Posted by Rumbaabaa at 10:04, 28 February 2008 | Report This Post


RE: authentic?

L: Rumbaabaa Can anyone tell me whether the first half hour or so of this film is in black and white? as someone been watching naughty copies of the film...? ... More

Posted by homersimpson_esq at 00:13, 28 February 2008 | Report This Post


RE: authentic?

L: Rumbaabaa Can anyone tell me whether the first half hour or so of this film is in black and white? sp; No it's not, none of it is if memory serves. ... More

Posted by paulyboy at 23:11, 27 February 2008 | Report This Post


RE: authentic?

Can anyone tell me whether the first half hour or so of this film is in black and white? ... More

Posted by Rumbaabaa at 16:59, 27 February 2008 | Report This Post


authentic?

having read the story as seen form the viewpoint of Lucas's young daughter- who wasn;teven mentioned itn he film - this was not at all what i expected. I am no fan of Crowe- who looks increasingly like Ricky Gervais!- but i thought the acting was of a good quality throughout- however i thought that the ending was very weak and it felt as if they had cut it short for somereason.i also did not like the Departed and thought this was altogether better in terms of acting & storyline and it defina... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by kimratcliffe at 18:30, 05 January 2008 | Report This Post


I'm not a massive fan of Ridley Scott, I'm not crazy about Gladiator or Blade Runner but I do love Alien. But I watched this with an open mind, and to be honest it goes into my list of Scott films along with most of his work that isn't bad, but isn't great. Denzel Washington was great as Lucas - the film's strongest point. But I just didn't get Crowe in his role as det. Roberts, I'm not a massive fan of Crowe and I just felt he didn't bring a whole lot to the role. The film pans out more ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by ukedge87 at 11:04, 09 December 2007 | Report This Post


Better than 'The Departed'

Like a lot of films, American Gangster has it's flaws, but the skillful direction, excellent performances from the leading men make this movie one of the best crime movies of the decade. The Departed was too long for it's own good and focused mailnly on the violence rather than the characters (which is why the HK original Infernal Affairs is much more aoccomplished), where as American Gangster has a god balance about moral actions, the relationship between the cop and the crook as well ascorrup... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by SidArfaan at 13:52, 02 December 2007 | Report This Post


Better than 'The Departed'

Like a lot of films, American Gangster has it's flaws, but the skillful direction, excellent performances from the leading men make this movie one of the best crime movies of the decade. The Departed was too long for it's own good and focused mailnly on the violence rather than the characters (which is why the HK original Infernal Affairs is much more aoccomplished), where as American Gangster has a god balance about moral actions, the relationship between the cop and the crook as well ascorrup... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by SidArfaan at 13:52, 02 December 2007 | Report This Post


RE: Amercian Gangster

I enjoyed it, my only complaint would be that I felt the middle third was a little to lagging but other than that an enjoyable film. I thought Josh Brolin kinda stole it in places but it was nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr get back into his stride ... More

Posted by srod82 at 18:34, 30 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: Amercian Gangster

L: BigStew In response to the slating of 50 cent being a tit , may I remind you that Al Pacino , Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro are ACTORS playing roles as gangsters . THEY ARE NOT REAL .whereas 50 pence is a true to life gangster? break yourself fool! ... More

Posted by Chojin at 00:09, 29 November 2007 | Report This Post


with all the talent on offer scott washington crowe this should have been a lipsmacking feast a gold plated classic alas it isnt that not to say theyare not some good elements a real seventies feel in the way its madewith echoes of sidney lumets work josh brolins tache straight from nick nolte in qand a plus cop figts against corruption like serpico prince of the city. crowe is effectively world weary in his role as ritchie robert... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by quizkid at 12:15, 28 November 2007 | Report This Post


American Gangster

This looked brilliant on the trailer and turned out even better. I think its a masterpiece and would say it stands with Goodfellas and The Godfather as bieng one of the greatest American crime films ever made. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by solid snake at 15:09, 26 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American Gangster

i didnt like it! i thought i would. it had a hold of me for a while but near the mid end and end i was just bored. quite suprised. nevermind. ... More

Posted by haylzbella at 18:32, 24 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American gangster

American Gangster is a very good movie. I don't think it is Oscar worthy but then I didn't like The Departed and that turned into an Oscar winner (The power of Jack and Marty!)   I've seen Into The Wild and think that has an outside chance. One longer film with Oscar claims but a lot slower and stylistically different is the Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford. ... More

Posted by talentedgc at 17:57, 24 November 2007 | Report This Post


American Gangsta!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Just got back from the cinema, film was awesome! Denzel is worth an oscar nomination but Crowe maybe needs to re-think his approach rather than tread the same footsteps (LA CONFIDENTIAL?). I have to agree with earlier comments made, the back end of the film picked up the pace very quickly when another 20-30mins really would not have hurt. In the end Denzel's outstanding portrayal of Frank Lucas patches over the obvious signs of repetition/weakness to just scrape a 4/5. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by gareth_082 at 18:30, 23 November 2007 | Report This Post


American Gangsta!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Just got back from the cinema, film was awesome! Denzel is worth an oscar nomination but Crowe maybe needs to re-think his approach rather than tread the same footsteps (LA CONFIDENTIAL?). I have to agree with earlier comments made, the back end of the film picked up the pace very quickly when another 20-30mins really would not have hurt. In the end Denzel's outstanding portrayal of Frank Lucas patches over the obvious signs of repetition/weakness to just scrape a 4/5. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by gareth_082 at 18:30, 23 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: Very Gripping.

I'll echo the general consensus that this is extremely solid if unspectacular stuff, much like The Departed in my eyes. It's well shot, directed and acted if somewhat overlong truth be told, still thoroughly recommended however.   3.5/5 ... More

Posted by paulyboy at 12:33, 23 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: Very Gripping.

Good film. Has some really good moments and Denzil is ice cold blooded but not as good as The Departed from last year let alone the greats of Goodfellas, Scarface and The Godfather etc but like some said earlier its a good addition to the genre. ... More

Posted by Soulfinger at 19:42, 22 November 2007 | Report This Post


Very Gripping.

I just went to see this movie at my local cinemia and it was totally gripping. Denzel Washinton was brillant as the bad guy, he played it with such meance and charmsia that would make you believe him sometimes. Russell Crowe once again, does the good cop, struggling to have his kid and sleeping around, does also brillantly. You can work alongside him in the movie and then dump him because he may make a bad move. Both of them maybe, just maybe, be up for Oscar for best actor next year. It was ver... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by joanna likes films at 17:18, 22 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American gangster

Very good film, but I couldn't help thinking that it should have been two movies.   Both men, in real life, seem fascinating enough to have their very own film.   Really enjoyed Russell Crowe's portrayal, but having read the article about Frank Lucas, he seems to have been more of a character than the somewhat stern face that Denzel brings to the character.   Loved the production design. There was one scene where money is being put in a bag next to a phone. And beside... More

Posted by elzupasmonkey at 10:35, 22 November 2007 | Report This Post


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