American Gangster

America's love/hate interest with the cool criminal continues with American Gangster, the latest movie following the rise and fall of a powerful crime lord. This movie, set mostly in New Jersey during the 1970s, takes us on two parallel paths: the gangster and the police officer after him.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is the bodyguard, enforcer, and go-to man for a gangster in Harlem. When Frank's boss dies, Frank treats the drug trade like a business. He travels to Thailand to arrange for shipments of pure heroin to the U.S. (with help from the military), gives it his own name, and sells it cheaper than others are. This works perfectly and quickly catapults Frank to success: When Frank likens his product to Pepsi in name recognition and reputation, it's a twisted but appropriate comparison.

Frank also strives for independence and professionalism. He doesn't work for anyone, placing himself at the top and having others work under him. He avoids flashy clothes or an ostentatious lifestyle (when he wears a big mink coat and hat from his wife, that comes back to haunt him twice), hires his relatives as much as possible, and maintains necessary business relationships (usually commenting "My man" to whoever he makes an arrangement with) while killing anyone who gets in his way.

On the other side of this tale is Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Richie is a policeman whose integrity gets him in trouble from both criminals and his fellow police. Continually honest -- at the opening of the film he and his partner find almost a million dollars, which Richie makes them turn in -- Richie struggles against a seemingly endless tide of crooks and crooked policemen who have much more money than he does. (This character is not a paragon of virtue: His womanizing costs him his marriage and child.)

Director Ridley Scott manages to get the perfect results from his actors in American Gangster. Denzel Washington is intensely focused without going overboard, creating a protagonist whose focus is solely on his success, not on the dangers or consequences. Russell Crowe gives us an honest, hard-working guy who's weary from tilting at windmills but keeps at it because it's the right thing to do. And the supporting cast is quite good, though the focus is clearly on the two leads. The culture of the 1970s is also reflected in the news coverage of the war in Vietnam, which goes up and down along with the fortunes of Frank Lewis.

Be sure to check out American Gangster for an intelligent, exciting, and very well-acted drama about crime, honesty, business, and the American dream.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

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