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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

L: m_er L: simonmckergan1 I could have happily have watched another 30 mins.Me too. Felt never bored during the whole film. Not even a minute. So engrossing and thrilling. Thumps up ! I'll third that. Loved it. Denzel was class, as usual. Had my expectations dampened by the reviews i'd read/heard so thats maybe why i enjoyed it so much. Makes a change from going in with high hopes and having them dashed. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by benmharper at 21:37, 21 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American gangster

L: simonmckergan1   I could have happily have watched another 30 mins.sp; Me too. Felt never bored during the whole film. Not even a minute. So engrossing and thrilling. Thumps up ! ... More

Posted by m_er at 09:22, 21 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American gangster

I thought this was excellent, well acted and very gripping, though for some reason the ending seemed a bit rushed.  I could have happily have watched another 30 mins. 8 out of 10 (excellent) ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by simonmckergan1 at 07:56, 21 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American gangster

I dont know about you and dont care how cool or bad reviews this films got. I did like it, to tell you the truth best drug-trafficing film I've seen so far. And lemme tell you this : I've seen this types of film alot. But this one's great. As for actors I think D. Washington's getting greater, he's superb in this film. I enjoyed it thoroughly and gave 5/5 !   Besides, I dont understand the comparison to Goodfellas, Heat, The Departed or even The Godfather. For me these mentione... More

Posted by m_er at 23:55, 20 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American Gangster

Enjoyed the film, both denzel washington and russel crowe were excellent. One slight complaint. Had the feeling i'd seen it all before only better. Felt more like a scorsese movie than a rildey scott movie. Still, thank god it was at least better than the godawful virtuosity. In places it reminded me of serpico, especially the scene where russel crowe refuses to keep the money found in the boot of a car. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by filmnutrob at 17:06, 20 November 2007 | Report This Post


Amercian Gangster

Read a few of the reviews and to be honest I think you were all watching a different movie . Why compare it to classics like The Departed and Goodfellas when these were movies were telling a different story about gangster life . Amercian Gangster is a superb movie in its own right with some superb stories told through the eyes of Washington and Crowe . I prefer 2 or 3 hour films because you can grasp the whole story , not just guessing what happened . In response to the slating of 50 ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by BigStew at 12:35, 20 November 2007 | Report This Post


Amercian Gangster

Read a few of the reviews and to be honest I think you were all watching a different movie . Why compare it to classics like The Departed and Goodfellas when these were movies were telling a different story about gangster life . Amercian Gangster is a superb movie in its own right with some superb stories told through the eyes of Washington and Crowe . I prefer 2 or 3 hour films because you can grasp the whole story , not just guessing what happened . In response to the slating of 50 ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by BigStew at 12:35, 20 November 2007 | Report This Post


This is one of those films that is not perfect, but it has such pace and great performances and an interesting (if slightly unoriginal story) that you can't help but enjoy. Denzel, in particular, warrants the admission price on his own. I can see why Empire would give this 3 stars as they were probably expecting more from the epic combo of talent (possibly the same reason they gave The Departed 4 stars), but for me it was so goddam enjoyable and throughly recommendable that it has to be a 4 star... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by mattchoman at 12:36, 19 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: RE:

I'd have to agree with most of the peeps here to say the film is good/okay/decent/ but never great. Everything is 100% solid.  Story, characters, direction, acting, pace, action - its a film made by pro's who have been doing this shit for years so it is never ever bad.  Its just never amazing. Dezel Washinton steals the film being that he has the "firework" role, stealing each scene he's in.  Russel Crowe is, intentionally, the opposite - quiet, laid back - and it never... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by kenada_woo at 23:26, 18 November 2007 | Report This Post


American Gangster

Not quite in Godafathers league be deserves to be 4/5. a truly remarkable tale, that keeps you inthralled from start to finish. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by trotter3000 at 20:25, 18 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: This Year's Departed

Lacks a certain suspence in the end since Crowe doesnt really solve the case, so much as one of Washingtons brother's goons screws up and we all knew of course how he was smuggling the drugs as well as the eventual outcome. ... More

Posted by tarantinofan at 20:19, 18 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: This Year's Departed

There is something inherently cool about gangsters. I’m not talking about the likes of 50 Cent and co. who look like blinged-up tits, I’m talking about Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, Pacino in The Godfather, De Niro in Heat – men who do what they do for money and power and to look after their own, not to buy jewellery. With the lifestyle of such extravagance, it always makes the cops going after them seem dull and drab by comparison and this is the problem with American Gangster. Washington’s F... More

Posted by Timon at 18:06, 18 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: This Year's Departed

L: Ethanial Which is why people seem to love it, and it'll probably win all the Oscars this year, whilst at the same time wasting quality actors on a dull and overlong film, with a 90 minute story. sp; eally? I wasn't bored once within the 3 hour duration. Best film of the year so far for me. Performances were brilliant, fascinating and gripping storytelling. ... More

Posted by Bruce Wayne at 18:01, 18 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American gangster

L: moviemaniac2 this is Washington's best part since Training Day. The problem American Gangster faces is giving him a worthy adversary in Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts. this is the main reason it falls just short of the classics of Heat ,GoodFellas, or Godfather, and even short of last years Departed. o because he had a good opponent the film is not as good? ... More

Posted by doncopey1 at 20:57, 17 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American gangster

Excellent film. For a movie that was nearly 3 hours long, the whole thing just flew by. If anything, I wished the film were longer. With a few more scenes, added detail and additional character development for some of the secondary characters, American Gangster could be a masterpiece. With Ridley Scott's penchant for tinkering with his films, here's hoping we'll see an extended "directors cut" edition of American Gangster. I wanted to see more of Frank Lucas. Denzel Washington was outstand... More

Posted by Haiku at 12:18, 17 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American gangster

**Spoiler Warning**   American Gangster is an engrossing entry into the crime film genre from Ridley Scott. The rise and fall of New York heroin dealer Frank Lucas, and that of Richie Roberts, the honest cop who brings him to justice, is a riveting tale from start to finish. I'm not going to go into too much detail except maybe to comment on some of the criticisms that have been levelled at this film; basically, most negative comments seem tor revolve around the fact t... More

Posted by mackey at 01:59, 17 November 2007 | Report This Post


American gangster

This fabulous looking film has Washington's best part since Training Day. The problem American Gangster faces is in giving him a worthy adversary in Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts. this is the main reason it falls just short of the classics of Heat ,GoodFellas, or Godfather, and even short of last years Departed. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by moviemaniac2 at 23:44, 16 November 2007 | Report This Post


This Year's Departed

Which is why people seem to love it, and it'll probably win all the Oscars this year, whilst at the same time wasting quality actors on a dull and overlong film, with a 90 minute story. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Ethanial at 22:24, 16 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American Gangster

The worst that could be said about American Gangster is that it is a very good film, which stops some way short of greatness. That one would choose to say such a thing provides an idea of the sort of expectations that have been raised. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, with a plethora of top-drawer character support in addition, the cognoscenti anticipated an extravaganza to rival a Caesar's triumph - as would befit the work of a director who gave us cha... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Axel Foley at 20:13, 16 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American Gangster

L: Dantes Inferno L: Axel Foley Reading this line in the review: he music sounds second hand (who can hear Across 110th Street and not recall Jackie Brown?),id make me wonder whether anyone would recall the film that was Tarantino's inspiration (being Across 110th Street and starring the excellent Yaphet Kotto), rather than Jackie Brown. There is a certain irony in the comment, given that all Tarantino films engender a "second-hand” feeling. difference is that Across 110th Str... More

Posted by Axel Foley at 20:09, 16 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American Gangster

L: Axel Foley Reading this line in the review: he music sounds second hand (who can hear Across 110th Street and not recall Jackie Brown?),id make me wonder whether anyone would recall the film that was Tarantino's inspiration (being Across 110th Street and starring the excellent Yaphet Kotto), rather than Jackie Brown. There is a certain irony in the comment, given that all Tarantino films engender a "second-hand” feeling. difference is that Across 110th Street isn't as famous as ... More

Posted by Dantes Inferno at 10:42, 15 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: Excellent film

d Michael Mann now if he's saw American Gangster i bet he wishes he approached Miami Vice with the same idea because Scott's latest is a bloody fine addition to the genre, and whilst this is better than most of the crime gangster films we've seen in recent years, is still doesn't quite live up to the classic status we'd all hoped for. Ridley Scott the master of the visual filmmaking process should be appluaded for his style, his period detailing may fall short compared to Fincher's Zodiac but t... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by doncopey1 at 18:30, 13 November 2007 | Report This Post


Excellent film

Why? Can't be arsed to write a review now, ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Jasper at 12:02, 13 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American Gangster

Solid but unmemorable. I don't think many will consider this a classic but I defy anyone to dislike it. The focus should've been on Lucas instead of bolstering Roberts' with a divorce storyline, balancing it felt like a concession to star power rather than servicing the story. The pace never really ramped up either, his rise seemed pretty straightforward with no real conflict from other groups. I was expecting more of a cat and mouse game but it's very much at a distance, his downfall is inevit... More

Posted by Mycroft at 00:46, 13 November 2007 | Report This Post


RE: American Gangster

Reading this line in the review:   he music sounds second hand (who can hear Across 110th Street and not recall Jackie Brown?),p; did make me wonder whether anyone would recall the film that was Tarantino’s inspiration (being Across 110th Street and starring the excellent Yaphet Kotto), rather than Jackie Brown. There is a certain irony in the comment, given that all Tarantino films engender a “second-hand” feeling. ... More

Posted by Axel Foley at 17:26, 12 November 2007 | Report This Post


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