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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » February 6, 2008
Film review
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American Gangster
February 6, 2008   
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"The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family..." This little homily takes on a savage irony coming from organized crime boss and drug baron Frank Lucas as portrayed by Denzel Washington (Malcolm X, Philadelphia, Man on Fire).

People don't often empathize with a guy who can quietly resume his family meal after killing a rival, but American Gangster is that kind of movie. Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) depicts Lucas at his most morally ambiguous.

Lucas spent 15 years working for Harlem mobster "Bumpy" Johnson as a bodyguard, driver and debt collector. The opening scene shows Lucas calmly pouring gas onto a bound and mangled man before setting him alight and firing an entire clip into him. Lucas champions equal rights by putting an end to the white supremacy of New York's underworld. He even has Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante-Gotti, Mambo Kings, 1492: Conquest of Paradise), head of one of the most powerful Italian mob clans, paying obeisance. By buying top quality produce direct from the source and selling at competitive rates, Lucas shows himself to be a model of business efficiency. His source, by the way, is an unnamed Chinese general (Ric Young-The Transporter, Kiss of the Dragon) who demonstrates his business acumen by roping the peasantry in the "Golden Triangle" bordering Vietnam, Thailand and Burma into producing copious amounts of heroin at negligible cost. Shipping might have been a problem but with the Vietnam war in full swing, Lucas has the U.S. Air Force and a bevy of venal military at his service. The caskets of dead GIs make ideal shipping containers.

In the white corner stands detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe-The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind). Early on in the piece, Roberts finds $987,000 in the trunk of a car belonging to the mob's accountant. Being a good, and in the eyes of his colleagues, stupid cop, he hands in the money. By the end of the film it transpires that about three quarters of the police force were on the take at the time. For Roberts, though, work is the meaning of life, plus perhaps his many lovers.

Roberts only stumbles onto Lucas's existence after years of heading a special investigations task force when the normally publicity-shy Lucas appears at the ringside at a Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier match.

The movie is a long (over 2.5 hours) and rather slow account of the rise and fall of Lucas. Curiously, once arrested, he takes a shine to Roberts and breaks with a lifetime of discretion to squeal on bent cops and erstwhile comrades. Roberts finally quits his job at the prosecutor's office to become a criminal defense attorney and defend the man he once described in open court as "the most dangerous criminal in New York." American Gangster is rife with this sort of double standard.
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