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Movie Review

American Gangster

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Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, Ruby Dee, RZA, Cuba Gooding Jr and John Ortiz.

Duration: 156 minutes

Certificate 16

1 of 1 An epic
An epic

With less than two months to go before the 2008 Oscar nominations, you can take it as a safe bet that Ridley Scott's well paced, balanced and superbly cast gangster film, 'American Gangster', will almost certainly figure in a host of categories.

Covering huge ground over its 156 minutes, Scott's telling of the rise and fall of an infamous Harlem drug lord, Frank Lucas  (Washington), obviously treads similar ground to other works in the genre - notably Coppola's 'The Godfather' and Scorsese's 'Goodfellas'. 

And though 'American Gangster' sits easy in the company of such classics, Scott's movie succeeds in covering much more than the underhand dealings of criminals.

Like Mike Newell's 'Donnie Brasco' a decade previously, 'American Gangster' sets out to blend the gangster movie with the cop movie - flitting between 'The French Connection' and 'The Godfather' or 'Serpico' and 'Goodfellas'. Unlike Newell however, Scott succeeds.

'American Gangster' is ostensibly about the aforementioned Frank Lucas, a feared New York crime boss who was said to have been more powerful than any other criminal organisation, including the Mafia, when it came to dope dealing during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Reportedly amassing a fortune of $52m in less than a decade, Lucas' game was to take advantage of a rising heroin market in the US, buoyed by the return of soldiers from Vietnam who had begun experimenting with the drug whilst on service.

Smuggling heroin direct from Asia, Lucas branded his blend of heroin as 'Blue Magic', which was 100% pure, stronger than anything else on the street, and sold at a cheaper price than his competitors. 

The cop element to the storyline comes in the form of New Jersey detective Ritchie Roberts (Crowe), a good cop in a New York Police Department polluted at the time by corrupt officers, many of whom were in league with criminals.

Juggling a turbulent personal life with a desire to do the right thing on the job, Roberts' storyline (like Sidney Lumet's 'Serpico') focuses on his family life, his treatment within the force as a man swimming against the tide, and his pursuit of the mysterious figure behind 'Blue Magic'.

Lucas' story alone is epic enough to make for a near three-hour movie, though the interweaving of Roberts' storyline lends the film balance rather than glorifying Lucas as a potential Robin Hood-style figure.

Denzel Washington too ensures that Lucas, (whose ingenious rise to the top can exact some form of respect), isn't treated as a heroic figure. Though he brings out the caring, emotional and family side to the notorious criminal, Washington is clever enough to empty of such emotion when portraying his cold and clinical disregard for the thousands of lives he destroyed.

Crowe too excels as Roberts - the frustration and internal questioning of his own roles as a father, husband and police officer constantly etched upon his face. The juxtaposition between both characters' lives and their personal values also builds nicely in understanding the film's (and indeed the true) eventual conclusion of Lucas and Roberts' relationship.

Big, juicy, absorbing and entertaining, 'American Gangster' has many elements going for it. Great performances are complemented by gritty direction from Scott and a strong, finely paced script.

And, if you do fancy taking on an Oscar bet, then you could do worse then placing €5 on the excellent Ruby Dee in getting the nod in the Best Supporting Actress category. Though onscreen for a little under 10 minutes in total, Dee steals each scene she's in, giving an emotive, unrestrained and endearing performance as Mama Lucas that has Oscar written all over it.

Steve Cummins

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