Movie Review:
Denzel kills as ‘Gangster'

Posted Nov. 9, 2007

Jonathan Smith
Staff Writer

“American Gangster” is this year’s big crime drama that is sure to attract a lot of gangster film fans.

But the title is deceiving – it should really be called “American Entrepreneur” instead.

“Gangster” does not have the jazz (or blood count) of last year’s “The Departed.”

Nor does it have the stout of classic gangster films like “The Godfather.”
But what it does have is an interesting approach to the crime culture which makes it one of the most entertaining films of the year.

Based on a true story, Oscar-winner Denzel Washington portrays Frank Lucas.

What is unique about Lucas is his ability to switch hats from business man to ruthless murderer in a heartbeat.

Lucas never wears both hats at the same time, and cautions his workers not to mix business with pleasure.

He learns this from his mentor and boss, Bumpy Johnson, a Harlem drug lord.

After he witnesses the death of his boss, Lucas discovers that Bumpy was not his own boss at all.

So Lucas decides to do one final justice for Bumpy, and become a successful entrepreneur with a business that satisfies his customers and his pocket.

And he succeeded all too well.

When Lucas wants a product, he gets it.

And he gets it from the source, as the film shows Lucas travelling to southern Asia to get his supply of heroin.

He brings it back in a clever way, packaging it and selling it for a price cheaper than the competition.

Don’t get Lucas wrong, though.

When it is time to be ruthless, he is.

Especially when it comes to dealing with his right hand man and brother, Huey, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the spectrum, is detective Richie Roberts, played by Oscar-winner Russell Crowe.

Roberts seems to have a knack for playing the good cop.

This gets him in trouble when he turns in $1 million unmarked bills to his supervisor.

While you might believe Lucas would be the easy target as the antagonist, the bad guys are really those who wear the police badges.

Detective Trupo is played beautifully by Josh Brolin as the head of the “bad” cops and rules his district like a drug lord.

But Roberts has not always been a good guy.

The film shows Roberts fighting a nasty custody battle for his son with his ex-wife, Laurie Roberts, played by Carla Gugino.

The two cross paths when Lucas gets to be too big for his own good, as Roberts stumbles on him as the head of a drug enforcement team for the FBI.

This fascinates his team because Lucas is African-American, and no black man “has accomplished what the mafia hasn’t in 100 years.”

Crowe and Washington have starred in the same movie together before “Gangster” (remember “Virtuosity”?) but like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in “Heat,” they share the screen for only six to seven minutes.

The rest of the long two hours and 30 minutes the audience sees the two characters as part of different worlds.

There is no downside to this, because when they’re together, the film represents a great piece of acting, and when they’re not, it is still a well-acted drama.

Separately, Washington and Crowe’s performances are believably worthy, with Crowe only slightly edging out Washington.

Both actors command the screen with authority, but it is Crowe’s character that makes you feel you want to succeed, although you might admire and sympathize where Washington’s character is coming from.

The sets and costumes remind you of the decade where Afros and silk hair were the style and everyone wore bellbottoms.

The film never deceives itself from the true essence of the times.

Ridley Scott, director of “Blade Runner” and “Alien,” has had a consistent career of making great films, and “Gangster” is no exception.

Although the film is long, it somehow manages to keep you occupied, but indeed some parts are dry and not as compelling to watch as other more dramatic scenes.

Also the movie takes no sides on whether to admire Lucas’ choice of his life in crime as a drug trafficker or disapprove of it.

There are glimpses of the effects of drug usage in the film, but they are few and far between.

The film presents Lucas as not feeling remorseful about his crimes, which might bother some people.

But whether you agree in legalizing drugs or not, you have to agree that Lucas is one successful business entrepreneur, if perhaps in a different vein than Sam Walton and Ray Kroc.

So far, “Gangster” looks like it will be set to appear at the Academy Awards. But it should also be included in business ethics classes.

Jonathan Smith can be reached at

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