The Two Sides of the American Dream
By Rianne Hill Soriano
Ridley Scott solidly delivers a gritty and intense crime drama with ‘American Gangster.’
It may not be that groundbreaking and original in terms of concept and treatment, but Scott pumps it up with a fine dose of the grits and grinds of the 1970’s American drug wars. He cinematically retells a true-to-life story into a finely weaved cinematic tapestry about absolute corruption and its effects on the key players and the casualties of the crossfire. He recreates a story of the past and immerses the present audience into the intricate logistics of crime and drug pushing with the right pace and style for its long-form storytelling.
For all its familiar trappings, the drug world epic scale of ‘American Gangster’ makes a well-crafted account of the drug trafficking and police corruption in the early 1970s America. Though it suffers a bit from a slightly weak and convoluted first act, it takes surprising twists and turns after it – all the way to its simple and yet well-treated ending. It leverages its curve towards the unique qualities of the story and utilizes its nuances to push the best emotions for the film. Most likely, the cinematic version of Frank Lucas played by Denzel Washington may be quite softer than the real-life Frank, nevertheless, its creative license as a film offer doesn’t really go beyond what the film needs.
As a sprawling saga, ‘American Gangster’ tells an engaging story that can attract a significant audience. It’s an epic about crime and punishment with its bravura scenes having subliminal feel for myth. The film is packed with impeccable period elements and vast energy. It has a superb feel for its time and milieu and it utilizes the good aspects of the classic crime-gangster genre for a compelling film of enormous range and detail.
Ethnically diverse, ‘American Gangster’ successfully demonstrates a drug underworld organized like legitimate corporations – obsessed with competition, fair prices, and quality products – to the point where Lucas even lectures another drug pusher about the significance of ‘brand names’ and ‘trademark infringement’ in the heroin trade.
Amidst the gritty period atmosphere of 1970’s Harlem, the two powerhouse performances from main actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe effectively rule the screen. They both burrow deep into their characters without the cartoon crudeness and the put-on violence. Washington as the heroin kingpin Frank Lucas towers a steely grip form of interpretation to his character. He perfects his one acting face of mild displeasure and puts an ultimately valuable stamp onto this elegant man whose callousness alternates with his chivalry. Crowe as the solidly straight cop Det. Richie Roberts also renders first-rate acting while delivering his unbending and unshakable dedication for his job and the wretched personal life he deals with. And the rest of the cast bolsters such wonderfully diverse performances making the story work best for the film, and the film working best for the story.
‘American Gangster’ is a gripping double character study deftly contrasting a drug lord and a folk hero while presenting the American way of life of mobility, consumerism, and success. It presents how a heroin kingpin works with his most subtle and his most violent demeanors as a family member and a businessman, while his opposite in the society’s eyes, an ultimately straight NYPD crime buster dealing with his womanizing issues and his crooked personal life, keeps up with his role as a family man and a public servant. Indeed, this film makes keen observations on the systemic corruption and the personal attitudes of the people in the society. And it depicts the two sides of the so-called American dream.