Saturday, November 3, 2007

American Gangster

American Gangster (2007) is one of the infamous "Based on a True Story" line of movies. You always have to be careful when you watch something "based" on a true story. They range from fairly highly accurate...say, Gridiron Gang (2006) to the positively ludicrous...for example, JFK (1991). Even with the highly accurate there are certain liberties taken to make the movie more entertaining.

In this case, cops such as Ed Jones complain they were more to credit for bringing down Lucas than Richie Roberts. But it makes a better story the way it was portrayed.

Gangster starts out by letting you know that Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is no angel. In the opening scene he has a Hispanic rival tied to a chair. He douses him with gasoline, lights him on fire, then shoots him in the head as he burns.

Juxtaposed against this are the questionable legal tactics of Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and his partner as they strong-arm their way into a flophouse, get information, perform a search and seizure that is illegal due to the lack of warrant in hand...and then turn in the money.

This sets them apart from the other cops. Only Roberts is willing to turn in money...the corruption throughout the New York Police Department is rampant and other cops hate him for it.

Meanwhile, Bumpy Johnson (reportedly an uncredited Clarence Williams III) teaches him how to run a successful crime business.

After Bumpy dies Lucas finds he is shut out of all Bumpy's businesses. He quietly watches and studies what to do while Roberts loses his partner and is moved to a Federal drug prevention team.

Inexorably event move Lucas to find he can import high-grade heroin from Vietnam under cover of the Vietnam War. To help his organization, he brings in his family members out of the Carolinas.

Meanwhile, Robert's life is falling apart. He is losing custody of his son due to his bad companions and habit of sleeping with...well, every girl he comes across, apparently. Yet through it all he doggedly pursues whoever is importing the Blue Magic (the name Lucas gave his high-grade, low-price heroin).

He also runs into trouble with crooked cops who are protecting the drug trade in return for hefty cash payments and appropriations.

During this period, Roberts makes an interesting statement in which he alleges the drug trade could be stopped but there is no interest in stopping it because A) it employs too many people....judges, cops, prison guards, medical personnel, politicians....and B) because too many crooked cops are getting rich from the trade.

This is backed up when crooked cop Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) comes into Roberts' office and tells him they need to protect the cash cow that is Lucas.

Lucas, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly volatile and brutal. At one point a rival who demanded 20% is shot in the head in the middle of the street. Later, in a party at the Lucas domicile, a drugged out accomplice is shot in the leg. In revenge for the shooting, Lucas smashes the shooter's head in with the piano lid.

When he is shook down by Trupo and there are drugs in the car, he responds by beating his driver...who subsequently a pulp. He is a vicious man.

This viciousness is somewhat redeemed by his habit of giving out Thanksgiving turkeys. His largess is clearly intended by director Ridley Scott to instill a certain amount of empathy for Lucas, as are the stories of police abuse in his youth and the large number of corrupt police he encounters.

It is enhanced by the juxtaposition of images from the Vietnam War that reflect the changing nature of the battle between Lucas and Roberts.

Slowly but surely Roberts begins realizing it is Lucas, not some mystery crime family, bringing in the heroin. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, he turns a family member who gives up Lucas. They catch the dope and have their case built.

In return for a reduced sentence, Lucas then rolls over on everybody...including the cops. In one of the largest corruption cases in U.S. history, dozens of cops we convicted as a result of Lucas and his testimony and the work of Roberts and his crew.

The movie is darkly lit throughout. The characters are likable, you can feel some compassion both for Lucas and for Roberts...yet the not infrequent showings of junkies also shows the horrible price people pay for using heroin, thus counterfeiting the positive portrayals. At the end, you realize Lucas deserves prison time and are quite happy to see the corrupt cops being led away as well.

The acting is, as would be expected from Washington and Crowe, excellent. You never feel like you are watching actors, you feel like you are watching "real people" behave as they probably did.

It is a story that has all the elements of a great movie. But it somehow just...misses. It is an entertaining movie but nothing you will feel like you need to see again and again.

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