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Scott, Washington deliver a gangland masterpiece

by Glen Baity

Call it serendipity: On Thursday, my cousin and I were sitting at lunch, lamenting the fact that neither of us had been bowled over by a movie in what seemed like years. I go to the movies every week; he goes maybe once a month. This did nothing to dampen our agreement on the central point.

One day later, I saw American Gangster, perhaps the most absorbing, entertaining film I’ve seen in 2007. I never thought I’d say this, but maybe I should complain more often.

The film is the latest from directorial mastermind Ridley Scott, who knows his way around an epic better than 98 percent of his peers (of whom, incidentally, he has very few). This time around, he turns his focus to Harlem in the 1970s, chronicling the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), community activist to many, heroin supplier to many more, who for a time sat atop one of the most profitable organized crime outfits in the country. American Gangster follows Lucas from his beginnings as his predecessor’s right-hand man to his spectacular downfall at the hands of frustratingly honest cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).

A Greensboro native, Lucas ran his New York operation with the verve of a well-trained businessman, eager to give his customers “a product that’s twice as good for half as much.” His business, of course, is one in which middlemen – in this case, a cadre of dirty detectives who flood the streets with evidence-room contraband – don’t take kindly to being cut out of the action.

The well-drawn script by Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York, Schindler’s List) paints a complex portrait of its title character. American Gangster begins with Lucas lighting a man on fire and shooting him a half-dozen times, and it’s only the first of many monstrous acts portrayed over a sprawling two and a half hours. But he’s not all monster – a part of Lucas clearly wants wealth, but he has other motivations: to ensure that Harlem is led by one of its own, to provide for his family and to be his own man, answerable to no one. The startling lengths to which Lucas goes to realize those goals will tell you more about the intensity of his desires than the nature of evil.

Washington’s performance is certainly his best since Malcolm X and arguably the finest of his career. He captures the fire behind his character’s stoic façade, and makes a reliable focal point for a film that spans decades, boasts a who’s-who cast of current and classic African-American drama and contains a number of surprisingly effective and relevant subplots.

Crowe’s work is excellent as expected, and only actors as strong as he and Washington could effectively spar as they do while sharing comparatively little screen time. Indeed, Roberts and Lucas don’t lay eyes on each other until very near the end of American Gangster, but there’s a back and forth that nevertheless happens between their characters as Roberts’ team closes in on the Lucas empire.

And let’s not ignore that supporting cast: If Oscars were given for Best Ensemble, American Gangster would stand head and shoulders above the competition this year. The great actors involved here are almost too many to mention, but Scott has managed to assemble talents as varied as the show-stopping Ruby Dee, Armand Assante, “Deadwood”‘s John Hawkes and RZA, resident genius of the Wu-Tang Clan. Each cast member, without exception, unselfishly fades into his or her role, however small, and the winning effect on the film is evident in every frame.

In a post-“Sopranos” world, any movie about the mob has a much higher standard of quality to meet. We want our gangsters complicated, and in this respect, Scott’s film delivers. In the hands of another director, American Gangster could have easily been a mess, or worse, a wholly sympathetic love note, but Scott holds the film’s multiple threads firmly and doesn’t let his subject off the hook for the lives he destroys. The result is an assured, confident masterpiece that brings the viewer into its world like few others.

Are you not entertained? Then send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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