Tough guys

‘Amer­i­can Gang­ster’ brings the goods

The Covington News - - NEWTON @ PLAY -

Fea­tur­ing Den­zel Wash­ing­ton and Rus­sell Crowe at the top of their game, “Amer­i­can Gang­ster” is an in­stant clas­sic in the bloody crime genre.

The film fo­cuses on Frank Lu­cas’ (Wash­ing­ton) rise to power in Har­lem and even­tu­ally all of New York in the 1970s as the lead­ing dis­trib­u­tor of heroin. Un­like his com­peti­tors, Lu­cas im­ports his drugs di­rectly from Asia us­ing U.S. mil­i­tary trans­ports which al­lows for a bet­ter prod­uct at a lower price. Lu­cas is smart about his busi­ness, re­ly­ing heav­ily on his fam­ily and pub­lic ap­pear­ance to dis­tance him­self from his prod­uct and the de­struc­tion it causes. Un­like oth­ers in the busi­ness, Lu­cas is care­ful to dress like a busi­ness­man and not like an ex­trav­a­gant pimp. Be­cause of this, it takes years for the po­lice even to re­al­ize Lu­cas ex­ists.

Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the scrappy cop who fi­nally con­nects all the dots and links the Lu­cas fam­ily with the drug trade. Roberts is one of the few hon­est cops in the city, il­lus­trated early in “Gang­sters” when Roberts and his part­ner find al­most a mil­lion dol­lars in the back of drug dealer’s car. In­stead of tak­ing the money, Roberts turns in the loot which ruf­fles the feath­ers of hun­dreds of dirty cops on the force. But be­cause of his hon­est rep­u­ta­tion, Roberts is asked to start a spe­cial drug task force de­signed to take down the top ech­e­lons of the drug world.

Di­rec­tor Ri­d­ley Scott (“Gla­di­a­tor”) weaves the men’s sto­ries seam­lessly as Roberts ob­sesses over Lu­cas and the case while Lu­cas is un­aware Roberts even ex­ists un­til the fi­nal scenes of the movie. As Lu­cas lives in the lap of lux­ury sur­rounded by fam­ily and sports stars, Roberts has to wal­low through the shady parts of the city while fight­ing his ex-wife for cus­tody of his son.

De­spite early buzz for Wash­ing­ton as an Os­car fa­vorite, Crowe is the real star here. Crowe por­trays Roberts as an ev­ery­man, some­one who has faults and is by no means per­fect, but who does what is right de­spite some over­whelm­ing ob­sta­cles. Crowe never forces it. Roberts never comes off as any­thing more than a reg­u­lar guy driven to do his job while still keep­ing his con­science.

Wash­ing­ton takes a dif­fer­ent and equally ef­fec­tive route as Lu­cas, play­ing him as a wait­ing time bomb. For most of the movie, Lu­cas seems to be a car­ing fam­ily man just try­ing to make a liv­ing, but in the move­ments when his tem­per gets the bet­ter of him, a vi­o­lent psy­chopath emerges. In two scenes, Lu­cas bru­tally beats fam­ily mem­bers for cross­ing him, one of whom he nearly kills by re­peat­edly crush­ing his head un­der a pi­ano lid.

De­spite the count­less mur­ders and thou­sands of lives ru­ined, Lu­cas comes off as an al­most un­der­dog whom you root for. De­spite the vile na­ture of the work, it was pretty clear Lu­cas was just part of the depraved sys­tem. In the end, the crooked cops are the true vil­lains of “Gang­ster.”

Like “The De­parted” last year, “Gang­ster” is a wor­thy ad­di­tion to rich his­tory of gritty crime epics. Driven by the out­stand­ing per­for­mances of Wash­ing­ton and Crowe, “Gang­ster” should please au­di­ences look­ing for more some­thing more than usual mind­less ac­tioner.

Grade: B+

Tyler Smith

Film Critic

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