Thursday, November 8, 2007

American Gangster

Last week on the HJ Live internet radio program I predicted the number one movie over the weekend was going to be Bee Movie. Man oh man was I wrong. I went to see Bee Movie at one of the metroplexes in town, saw the feature I wanted to see was sold out, so went ahead and got a ticket to the nearly three hour long feature, American Gangster. I knew I wanted to see this movie, had high expectations in fact, but as high as those expectations were, I wasn’t expecting what I got. What I ended up getting was a viewing of one of the best gangster movies made in recent years.

American Gangster is the violent bio picture that follows the lives of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. Lucas and Roberts are both played brilliantly by leading men Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe respectively. Lucas is a black man originally from Greensboro North Carolina who lives in Harlem a burrow of New York City. While working under the tutelage of a Crime Boss Bumpy Johnson played by one of my favorite character actors, Clarence Williams III, Lucas learns the tricks of the trade that allows him to become one of the top crime lords and drug dealers in the country. This film does a tremendous job at character development with one of the best ensemble groups in a very long time. In fact, American Gangster is filled with quality, from editing, to story, to sound for a picture that in many scenes reminded me of Apocalypse Now. Just about everything about this movie from a technical perspective is near perfect. Ridley Scott has directed what will surely be an Oscar contender in a number of areas.

There is so much that can be said about American Gangster, there will be the inevitable comparisons to other gangster movies, from The Sopranos to The Godfather. While the comparisons are somewhat understandable, I think they are a mistake for a variety of reasons. In this tale, we follow the life of Richie Roberts played wonderfully by Russell Crowe. Roberts is a cop who has a heart that is too good to be true. He is so pure in fact that he has a difficult time getting along with his fellow police officers. His goodness for doing what is right isn’t lost though on the government as he is eventually selected by the Federal Government to head up a drug task force to eventually take down the drug lords of New York. While we see a side of honesty and purity, we can also quickly see a side of Richie that shows his short comings and faults. His wife and daughter see those faults, and eventually he sees the faults in himself.

The person on the opposite end of the spectrum is Frank Lucas. Here we see a person who doesn’t think twice about murdering someone, or in selling drugs that kill those in his own community. While we see him for the evil person he is, Ridley Scott does a great job at also letting us see a side of him we wouldn’t normally think about, a side that has him loving his family, his wife, and in fact being faithful to even take his grandmother to church, and to offer a prayer of thanks during Thanksgiving to his Lord, Jesus.

Throughout the progression of American Gangster we see conflict, and difficulty. We see it in the issues related to the characters, but also, ultimately in our own perceptions of people. Who is good? Who is bad? What makes one evil? What makes one good? Entwined with this conflict we see not only the struggle of character, but a spiritual battle where the characters on film and those sitting in the seats watching the movie are forced to come to some resolve on those very questions.

I liked virtually everything about this film, even with its length. The only thing I felt lacking was the rush to conclusion towards the end of the film. There are brief moments where the quality of the first 2 hours of the movie is lost towards the last 45 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, those last 45 minutes are still exceptional film making, but they do not meet the expectations of the first two thirds of the movie. From the sound to costumes, the ensemble cast and the brutal reality of the violence this movie is dark, dirty, vulgar, and ultimately reflective and redemptive. American Gangsters is a movie I will see again in the theater, and will ultimately purchase via DVD. It is a movie to be experienced on the big screen as well as enjoyed for the technical superiority and historic content.

American Gangster is a movie some will hate and some will love. Thankfully, the reviews have so far been very positive from a fan perspective, and somewhat good, but not great from a critical perspective. Take away that critic concept and listen to this fan of the gangster genera. This is a brilliant film, not perfect, but nor far from it. On a scale of 1 – 10 I will remove the critic element and give it the near perfect score of 9.

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