Paul Cook 26/11/2007
American Gangster tells the legendary story of Harlem crime-lord Frank Lucas and Det. Richie Robert's fight to bring him to justice. Thrilling from beginning to end but lacking in any real moment of exhilaration, Ridley Scott's true gangster tale is a murky, brooding thriller with an Oscar-deserving performance from Denzel Washington and solid support in the form of Russell Crowe.
However, lacking the visceral distinctiveness of a Scorsese gangster epic and the outright believability of Coppola's benchmark trilogy, American Gangster is a film that promises so much but falls ever so short of the mark by the time the credits roll. One feels that had this film been the project of a truly committed gangster movie director it could have been the next Goodfellas or Scarface. That's not to say that Ridley Scott's latest film isn't an amazingly involving and enjoyable one, just not as epic as you really wish it was. Denzel Washington's portrayal of one of Harlem's most high profile and successful crime lords is stunning and should no doubt be in the running for an Oscar. Russell Crowe's Richie Roberts is a strong and believable character, a part which very few people: could play as well as Crowe does.
Throughout the film a certain tension builds ever so subtly but the climax fails to do the rest of the film justice. There are some very striking shoot-outs and events that make the near three hour film a highly worthwhile watch this Christmas. Some have compared the final meeting of Lucas and Roberts to that of the Pacino/De Niro exchange in the crime classic Heat. This is another unjust perception of the film. Where Heat bubbles with tension and delivers a fantastic piece of scriptwriting, the final exchange in American Gangster only serves as a conclusion and ending to the story. Both films are based on true facts and so the room for embellishment is minimal, however Heat manages to instill in the audience an unforgettable meeting of Hollywood greats where A.G. only achieves a much needed conclusion after a gluttonous two and three quarter hours.
American Gangster is a fantastically well written, directed and performed film, outshining any other cinematic release of the past few months, but the gap between good and great still seems rather large. The story itself, being true, is an intriguing, enthralling journey from small time drug dealer to Harlem crime lord, showing this with passion and respect. The content is thrilling but never really amounts to anything unforgettable and the potential this film had to provide this only makes that fact more disappointing. Nevertheless if you wish to see one of the year's best performances it's here with Washington.