American Gangster

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2008, 12:00am

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Director: Ridley Scott

Category: IIB

In one of the key sequences in American Gangster, Richie Roberts - an incorruptible New York police officer at the helm of an independent drug-busting squad - is asked why he wants so much attention on the fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. To which he answers: 'It ain't boxing - it's politics.'

Roberts has his own practical reasons for casting his eye on the match - he's scouring the audience for the face of the elusive kingpin of New York's narcotics trade - but his response could be seen as Ridley Scott's gambit in making clear how his film should be understood.

Scott has certainly infused the film with nods to past celluloid classics about the American underworld: the Manhattan Bridge being used as a backdrop in homage to Once Upon a Time in America, for example, or characters talking about 'the French connection' and Godfather-like juxtaposition of criminal deeds being conducted while the master villain, Harlem overlord Frank Lucas, takes pleasure from virtuous family functions.

But just like the similarly monikered but seemingly completely different American Psycho, it's the first half of the film's title that gives the game away: rather than a conventional gangster flick, American Gangster aims straight at the heart of the collateral damage inflicted by one man's pursuit of the wealth and glory of the American Dream.

This is America in 1968, with the country teetering on social collapse because of the military misadventures in Vietnam and the conflict of social values that will eventually usher in the cynicism of the Nixon-Reagan era.

It's from here that Lucas (Denzel Washington) - the embodiment of what could easily be neo-liberalism's showcase individual, with his dedication to hard and disciplined graft and a belief in the disposable nature of anything and anyone who stands in his way - embarks on his ascension to the top, his ruthless drive to personal gain leaving nothing but bloodshed and drugged-up youths in his wake. Hot on his trail is Roberts (Russell Crowe, above), the upstanding detective hell-bent on clearing the streets of Lucas' work - and the NYPD of corrupted officers who consider Roberts a pariah for not giving in to the sway of underhand payments.

Scott fleshes out his underlying themes with taut storytelling and remarkable mise-en-scene that provides a sharp contrast of the fortunes of the two men.

With the cast delivering decent performances in front of backdrops comprising vivid period details and a soundtrack that oozes the manic energy of the period, Scott has produced a powerful film that makes disturbingly riveting viewing.

American Gangster opens today