The gangster picture is a time-honored staple of American cinema, equivalent to to the western in terms of cultural influence and popularity. The long, rich history of the genre stretches from early pulp like Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE (1932) to modern classics like Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990). Whereas the western’s straightforward ethical values typically boil down to who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat, gangster films are filled to the brim with murderous thugs who often possess an intense charisma, drawing out the audience’s sympathy and affections time and time again. Figures like Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, and Henry Hill loom large in our collective imaginations as folk heroes. Even the real-world criminals take on this mythic aura, the brutality of their crimes often glossed over in favor of the romanticization of their renegade entrepreneurialism. We find ourselves admiring them, even as we condemn them. In a way, they are inverse reflections of the American Dream narrative that fuels our own ambitions. They want the same things we want— family, friends, a nice home, a better community — but they’re willing to take shortcuts to get there; to cheat an unfair system that is already rigged against them.
Over the course of its nearly century-long history, the genre has extensively detailed Caucasian criminality, mostly from the perspective of Italian immigrants. While there has been some notable variety (the Irish gangsters of THE DEPARTED (2006), the Russian thugs of David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES (2007) or even the Jewish hoods in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), the overall experience has been one of overwhelming whiteness. The organized criminal enterprises of the African-American population, however, have typically been funneled into the “blaxploitation” subgenre— a cheeky, colorful movement that favors pulp over prestige. Until 2007, it was difficult to recall a film about African-American gangsters that endeavored to attain the mythic heights accorded to “conventional” (white) works like Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972). AMERICAN GANGSTER, directed by Sir Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington as the real-life heroin kingpin of Harlem, Frank Lucas, attempts to correct this imbalance by presenting itself as a direct descendant of those prestigious gangland epics about the American Dream run amok. Despite boasting lavish production value, razor-sharp direction, and electrifying performances, AMERICAN GANGSTER seems to lack the all-important “x” factor— that elusive, inscrutable quality that grants cinematic immortality. It’s a great film, to be sure; Scott himself refers to the project as one of the most massive undertakings of his career (1). Like its magnetic antihero, however, AMERICAN GANGSTER’s tendency to bite off more than it can chew leads to a legacy that falls just short of its grandiose ambitions.
The road to AMERICAN GANGSTER’s production was long and hard-fought, with a series of false starts and a revolving door of talent attaching and un-attaching themselves. Scott only officially signed on towards the very end, but he was nonetheless involved in a minor capacity from the project’s inception. In 2000, Universal and Imagine Entertainment purchased the rights to Mark Jacobson’s article ‘The Return Of Superfly”, which had run in a recent issue of New York Magazine (2). Producer Brian Grazer (aka The Hair) teamed up with executive producer Nicholas Pileggi of GOODFELLAS and CASINO (1995) fame to develop the film, ultimately commissioning a screenplay from Steven Zaillian. At the time, Zaillian was also working on the script for Scott’s HANNIBAL (2001), and showed the director his 170-page draft. Scott was quite interested, wanting to break Zaillian’s massive tome into two films to create something of a multi part epic (3)— that is, until his availability was precluded by the imminent production of MATCHSTICK MEN (2003) as well as his failed project, TRIPOLI. While Scott was off prepping what ultimately became 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, Grazer soldiered on. He next attached celebrated New Hollywood auteur Brian De Palma to direct the film, then called TRU BLU (4). After De Palma’s eventual exit in 2004, director Antoine Fuqua subsequently boarded the project, with Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro slated to star under pay-or-play agreements. Four weeks before principal photography could begin, production was shut down over Fuqua’s inability to reduce a budget that was rapidly nearing the $100 million mark. He was summarily dismissed over “creative differences”, and thanks to those aforementioned “pay or play” agreements, both Washington and Del Toro received their full multi-million dollar salaries without shooting a foot of film (5). The following year, screenwriter Terry George was brought on to craft a screenplay that could be produced for half the current cost, but found he too couldn’t hack it— even with superstar Will Smith now attached to replace Washington (6). Finally, Scott re-entered the picture in 2006, bringing actor Russell Crowe with him after having discussed the project extensively during their recent collaboration on A GOOD YEAR (7). Ironically enough, the version Scott was able to finally push into production was the one that so much blood and sweat had already been spilled over— Zaillian was brought back onboard to rewrite his earlier draft, as was Washington to fulfill his earlier commitments to the Lucas role, and the production budget had ballooned back up to the $100 million mark. Whether or not the finished product is all the better for its tumultuous development history is debatable, but the meticulous craftsmanship of Scott and his collaborators certainly makes a powerhouse case in the film’s favor.
AMERICAN GANGSTER spans the years 1968 through 1973, chronicling the epic rise and fall of one Frank Lucas— an ambitious man whose cunning business sensibilities enable him to command a vast heroin empire while serving as a prominent and beneficial community figure to the Harlem populace. The Vietnam War may raging abroad, but extreme poverty has hit home, fueling a widespread crack epidemic that presents a lucrative business opportunity for the man hungry enough to exploit it. Washington — who at the time was a frequent leading man for younger Scott brother, Tony — delivers an expectedly gripping performance as just such a man. His ruthless ambition and dense gravitas commands our attention in every frame, compelling us to follow as he sets about importing pure heroin directly from the jungles of Thailand— a scheme that allows him to double his product’s potency while cutting the price in half. Like a true capitalist, Frank bestows a brand name on his stuff— “blue magic” — and subsequently takes over Harlem’s illicit drug industry in very short order. What sets Frank apart from streetwise competitors like Idris Elba’s Tango is the importance he places on family, evidenced by his flying his brothers and mother in from North Carolina to help him build his business. Despite Frank’s best efforts otherwise, the slow creep of greed and corruption soon frays his family’s ironclad bonds, their flaws subsequently becoming his own. Brothers like Common’s cheery Turner and Chiwitel Ejiofor’s excess-prone Huey, become liabilities instead of assets, while his increasingly heartbroken mother (Ruby Dee, in an Oscar-nominated performance) chips away at his steely resolve.
The yin to Lucas’ yang is Richie Roberts, played by Crowe as a somewhat-slovenly plainclothes New Jersey Cop with equally-ambitious aspirations to become a defense lawyer. Unlike Lucas, Richie’s personal life is a mess— he’s tempestuous, prone to fits of anger, and his shameless womanizing has already cost him his wife (a litigious Carla Gugino) and threatens to cost him his child. The one good thing he has going is that he’s unfailingly honest, almost to a fault— after he turns in a huge seizure of illicit cash without taking any off the top for himself, he earns only the suspicion of his peers. Richie’s arc illustrates the rampant corruption in New York’s police force during the early 70’s, painting him as the one man brave enough to take on the system and actually enact institutional change. Nowhere is this corruption more embodied than in the form of Josh Brolin’s Detective Trupo, a mustachioed extortionist shamelessly playing both sides for his own gain. As he seeks to topple Lucas’ heroin empire, Roberts and his team of special operatives (headlined by a wiry John Hawkes and a dynamic RZA, of Wu-Tang Clan fame) manage to uncover the foundation-shaking criminal complicity of the NYPD: a sweeping scandal that ensnares a mind-boggling number of cops, bureaucrats, and city officials. Befitting a film of this scope, AMERICAN GANGSTER backs up Washington and Crowe’s headlining performances with a sprawling ensemble cast that includes the likes of John Ortiz as Richie’s partner-turned-junkie, Lymari Nadal as Frank’s increasingly-disenchanted beauty-queen wife, Cuba Gooding Jr as a flamboyant playboy who rips Frank off by cutting the potency of his product in half, TI as Frank’s similarly-ambitious yet misguided nephew, Coen Brothers regular Jon Polito as an Italian bookie and confidante to Frank, and an uncredited Clarence Williams III as Frank’s mentor and father figure, “Bumpy” Johnson. Indeed, the cast is almost too numerous to name individually, with each member turning in memorable performances that serve to bolster those of Washington and Crowe’s nuanced and muscular turns (themselves given an added humanity by virtue of an immersive prep that saw them spend significant amounts of time with their real-life counterparts).
AMERICAN GANGSTER marks Scott’s first and only collaboration with the late, celebrated cinematographer Harris Savides, their joint efforts resulting in an iteration of the director’s signature look that’s more softly-lit than its predecessors. On its face, Scott’s theatrical, stylized approach suggests that it may not play well with Savides’ naturalistic tendencies, but AMERICAN GANGSTER nonetheless presents a unified front that routinely delivers some of the finest images in the director’s filmography. The most immediate departure to be observed is Scott’s use of the 1.85:1 canvas in lieu of his preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which enhances the film’s naturalistic tone by foregoing the suggestions of “theatricality” that the CinemaScope format implies. Savides’ nuanced lighting techniques give the 35mm film image a somewhat-neutral color palette that deals primarily in desaturated stone and metal tones, while highlights trade in Scott’s signature blue-and-orange dichotomy. Stylistic elements like snow, smoke, silhouettes, and dark interiors capture the grit and grime of 1970’s Harlem while evoking a visual continuity with Scott’s preceding canon. After the loose restlessness of his camera in A GOOD YEAR, AMERICAN GANGSTER finds Scott returning to his tried-and-true mix of formalistic, classical camerawork and technical experimentalism (which manifest here in a variety of speed ramps, zooms, and 45 degree shutter effects).
Savides’ excellent work finds its complement in the contributions from returning Team Scott personnel like returning production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia (reporting for duty for the first time since 2001’s BLACK HAWK DOWN), and composer Marc Streitenfeld. A story set in 70’s Harlem naturally lends itself to a dynamic musical palette, and AMERICAN GANGSTER capably delivers in this regard. Streitenfeld crafts a brooding, propulsive orchestral score that draws its pulpy edge from the traditions of the blues and soul genres, while Scott complements the cue sheet with a mix of pre-recorded tracks from the period. Lively songs like Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” brilliantly illustrate the flavor of the era without resorting to disco kitsch, while Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It” proves an inspired selection for Lucas’ emergence from prison into the New York of the 1990’s— a foreboding world he barely recognizes; on the cusp of dramatic technological change, where the principles and virtues that propelled his rise no longer hold sway. Indeed, AMERICAN GANGSTER’s soundtrack may just be the highest-profile aspect of the film’s legacy, with Anthony Hamilton’s “Can You Feel Me?” continuing to drift through the airwaves after being commissioned to emulate a vintage 70’s R&B sound. The film had a particularly powerful effect on hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who was so inspired by Scott’s vision that he immediately created a companion album of the same name.
AMERICAN GANGSTER theoretically could have been made by other directors (indeed, it almost was), but its effortless swagger and fluid style is exclusively Scott’s doing. Beyond the performances, the film’s greatest strength lies in the meticulous recreation of 1970’s New York. Scott’s dogged pursuit of authenticity would eschew controlled soundstages for the chaotic vibrancy of real-world locations, ultimately setting the record for the highest number of locations in a motion picture (8). This, combined with Scott’s signature ability to conjure up immersive cinematic environments from scratch, makes for a picture that captures the grit, grime and filth of the era. Few directors are able to render the distinct color of urban life better that Scott, who fills his streets with diverse crowds and buzzing activity that speaks to the multi-directional flow of humanity in cities as well as the constant clashing of cultures. The story’s constant pivoting between Lucas’ Harlem and Roberts’ white working-class environs provides a conduit for Scott to further his career-long exploration of xenophobia, allowing us to see firsthand how the police force’s institutional corruption and systemic racism worked overtime to keep the African-American population down during the 70’s (and beyond, if we’re being honest). Towards this end, narcotics became a powerful tool for the police, allowing them to control the outflow of heroin to the streets in a strategic bid to perpetuate poverty and crime. This is why Lucas represented such a large threat— here was an intelligent and eloquent man of color who defied all of their deeply-entrenched prejudices; a cunning businessman who had used his wealth to enrich his community, and who could very well beat the corrupt cops at their own game. In response, they overreached, allowing Roberts and other virtuous lawmen to see their widespread ethical decay in the bright light of day. In the end, justice was only possible when the two worlds came together as one— signified by Lucas and Roberts joining forces to expose the law’s staggering malpractice.
AMERICAN GANGSTER’s theatrical release in 2007 would meet with a degree of controversy, in that some of its real-world subjects accused Scott and company of glamming up, if not outright fabricating, the events depicted in the film. Any film that’s not a documentary must employ dramatic license— it’s an inherent part of the form. What truly matters in this context is whether or not the story achieves an emotional truth; whether it successfully stitches the story at hand into the greater tapestry of the human experience. Thanks to its meticulous period recreation and commanding performances, AMERICAN GANGSTER largely excels towards this end. For the most part, audiences and critics alike agreed on the film’s pedigree, awarding it with a decent box office return ($130M domestic, $266M worldwide) and mostly-positive reviews (the late Roger Ebert bestowed a rare perfect four-star rating on the picture (9)). Positioned as an awards contender, AMERICAN GANGSTER ultimately secured just two Oscar nominations— one for Arthur Max’s production design, and the other for Ruby Dee’s supporting performance. Indeed, Dee’s recognition (and to a lesser extent, Gugino’s memorable performance) over a cadre of muscular male performances — in what could very well be described as an overwhelmingly-masculine film — speaks volumes about Scott’s directorial strength with richly-developed female characters. Also speaking to Scott’s artistic hallmarks: the release of an Extended Cut with AMERICAN GANGSTER’s debut on home video. This version, which is most decidedly not a Director’s Cut, brings the film’s running time to just under three hours, containing new sequences that expand on the father/son dynamic that Lucas had with his mentor, “Bumpy” Johnson, as well as an alternate ending that sets up Lucas’ and Roberts’ friendship after the former’s release from prison. This added information doesn’t necessarily improve AMERICAN GANGSTER’s ultimate standing within Scott’s filmography— indeed, the Theatrical Cut is still the superior version of the film by far. Now that a decade has passed, it’s evident that true cinematic greatness lies just beyond AMERICAN GANGSTER’s grasp; one wonders if Scott’s initial idea to split the film into two parts might have been the wise move after all. It’s easier to devour a feast when there’s more people to attack it. Nevertheless, time may yet be kinder still to AMERICAN GANGSTER, blessed with passionate contributions by figures like Scott and Washington working in top form. More than anything, AMERICAN GANGSTER maintains Scott’s position at the forefront of 21st century studio filmmaking, while suggesting that the best days of his career may still yet be ahead of him.
AMERICAN GANGSTER is currently available on high-definition Blu Ray via Universal.
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Produced by: Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott
Director of Photography: Harris Savides
Production Designer: Arthur Max
Edited by: Pietro Scalia
Music by: Marc Streitenfeld
- IMDB Trivia Page
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