Flick of the Day: American Gangster

I'm a big fan of the English born director Ridley Scott here at The Daily Flick. Indeed, the very first post on this blog way back on Sunday Dec 5th 2010 was a review of the Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps one of his best works in its full and unmangled version. Over the course of his career, Scott has produced some truly ground breaking works while operating well within the mainstream of modern genre cinema. Very often the impact of his work has been lessened by a triumph of visual style over narrative substance. Films like Black Rain and Black Hawk Down were visually stunning at times but lacked something which made them memorable. However when he manages to marry a compelling story to his visual flair, there are few better than him. Today's flick of the day American Gangster is most definitely in the latter category.
Opening in 1968 with the Vietnam war rapidly reaching its nadir, this is the story of Frank Lucas, ably played by Denzel Washington, the right hand man of the soon to be deceased Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson. Stepping into the power vacuum created by the death of his mentor, Lucas sets out to become the most powerful hood in the 5 boroughs of New York by travelling to Thailand and seeking to import heroin from its jungle source. Taking advantage of the boom in users caused by serviceman returning from Vietnam with a needle in their arm, Lucas quickly corners the market. This is unwelcome news for a group of corrupt cops led by Josh Brolin who have been selling confiscated heroin back to the Mafia men who had imported it. Into this heady brew steps Richie Roberts, a straight as an arrow cop training to be a lawyer with a zeal for putting away drug traffickers. Roberts is played by Russell Crowe who excels in the role. Roberts quickly begins a quest to bring Lucas to justice by any means.
The real joy of this film is Scott's ability to weave what is a very interesting look at New York sub-culture in the late 60's and early 70's. At times there is an almost documentary feel as the set-up of the city's drug trade is laid out before us. From an aside about the police selling the drugs captured in The French Connection to the interactions between the dealers and celebrities of the era, the film exudes authenticity and research. This grounding in the era and an understanding of the world into which Lucas begins his rise to power serves the film well.
Like so many of Scott's films, this has a cast rich with talent throughout. Fine actors like Idris Elba, Jon Polito and John Hawkes appear in tiny roles and such was the hype surrounding the script that the cast is littered with a who's who of stars from the American hip-hop scene. The leads each give nuanced performances throughout. Brolin stands out perhaps because he has the most entertaining role as a corrupt and ruthless detective who is menacing throughout. Crowe is his usual competent self and Washington surprises in his ability to inhabit the morality free zone that is Frank Lucas' world.
Perhaps one of the more underrated of Scott's films perhaps because it initially appears to be overly glossy and lacking substance, there is much to enjoy here and as it reaches its natural denouement becomes quite a compelling ride. You know Frank is going to be captured but it is the how that is just as entertaining. A fine film.