Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jr, Josh Brolin, RZA, John Ortiz, Ted Levine, Carla Gugino, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Norman Reedus
Director: Ridley Scott
SUNY Purchase '05
"I don't compromise my values and I don't compromise my work. I won't give in." -Michael Moore
Review By: Rocco Passafuime
American Gangster (Unrated Extended Edition)
In the 1970's, crime films like Serpico, The French Connection, Chinatown, Boxcar Bertha, and The Godfather films ruled the day. However, such films were released against a backdrop of American history, where many of these crimes ran rampant in the urban world.
One such crime lord to emerge in this period was Frank Lucas, who became so powerful and influential as a heroin supplier that for a brief time that Harlem was virtually under his control. His incredible story is now told by director Ridley Scott, the accomplished director of Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, in American Gangster, now available on DVD in an "Unrated Extended Edition"Â.
In 1968 Harlem, NY, after influential gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson suddenly dies, his driver Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) becomes his unlikeliest of successors. Lucas soon rises to power in the drug underworld by offering customers an extremely potent and pure form of heroin out of Thailand known as "Blue Magic"Â, covertly transported inside the coffins of the American dead returning home from the Vietnam War.
Unlike his rivals, Lucas manages to slip under the radar of the police by continually stressing that he and his cohorts operate absolutely conservatively and discreetly to avoid being detected. However, after he attends the Ali Vs. Frazier fight, sporting a flamboyant chinchilla hat and coat, he ends up finally attracting the attention of the womanizing, but otherwise completely ethical New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). A black sheep in a police force riddled with corruption due to the influence of Lucas and the Italian crime families, Roberts begins to investigate him and soon is determined to prove that Lucas is single-handedly behind the trafficking of "Blue Magic"Â.
While excellently made, American Gangster ultimately doesn't bring much that's very new to the table of gangster films. Ridley Scott continues his penchant for stylish directing and both Washington and Crowe get a great chance to shine here with fantastic, knockout performances.
The rest of the cast, particularly Ruby Dee as Frank's mother, is also very top notch. However, while its real-life story is certainly gritty and authentic, not much is done with it to really stand out.
Problematic most of all is when there are occasional high moments, particularly during the gripping raid scenes. These tend to only end up sinking into the murk of a 2 hour and 40 minute running time, with an even longer three hours in the rather unnecessary unrated cut also included.
The DVD's picture quality is in the 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, with the sound quality in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. This "Unrated Extended Edition"Â DVD comes packed with plenty of special features that span over two discs.
On disc one, you get to watch
Disc two contains the bulk of special features. The first is two deleted scenes, one of Frank and Eva's wedding and an alternate opening.
Another feature is a five-part documentary called "Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster"Â, which features different insights into the making of the film. Against the backdrop of great cast and crew interviews, they run the gamut from the real-life story to the costumes to the production to the Ali Vs. Frazier fight, which is the background for one the film's most pivotal scenes, to the sound, music, and editing.
Rounding out the special features is "Case Files"Â, which are informative and insightful, but only for the most hardcore of fans. It contains three different featurettes of footage that cover different aspects of the production, from a script meeting to a heroin test show and tell to how the criminal operation raid scene is set up.
All in all, while the story doesn't really break the mold, its real-life authenticity, coupled with great, full-blooded performances by both Washington and Crowe and fantastic atmospheric direction by Scott makes everything work. It's not the most exceptional or distinctive gangster film as an end result, but American Gangster is certainly smart, slick, and compelling enough to surely stand alongside against the best of them.
Movie Grade: B+
DVD Features Grade: A
Overall Grade: A-