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Film Review: American Gangster, by Ridley Scott

Few if any directors can boast careers as varied and as successful as Ridley Scott.  The list of genres he’s explored is staggering: Sci-fi in Blade Runner, Horror in Hannibal, Crime in Matchstick Men, war in Black Hawk Down, historical epic in Gladiator, Fantasy in Legend, thriller in Someone to Watch Over Me, romantic comedy in A Good Year – even that’s not an exhaustive list.  What’s really remarkable is that most of those films have been both commercial and critical triumphs.  Scott has had his high and lows like anyone, (and the highs have perhaps been scarcer in recent years), but even his worst work has much to recommend it. 

Clearly Sir Ridley has decided it’s time to plug one of the few remaining gaps in his CV.  What we have here, in case that title didn’t give it away, is his stab at the gangster epic.  Whatever his other merits, Scott has always been a canny businessman, and the timing seems well judged: with films like Inside Man, The Departed and Zodiac all performing well in the last few months, the crime movie appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance. 

One element of that comeback is a return to the kind of smart, thoughtful crime films that flourished in the seventies, as epitomised by the work of Sidney Dog Day Afternoon Lumet.  American Gangster follows that trend too, not only on the obvious level that it’s set in the seventies, but with its grim urbanity, its muted colour palette, and its attempts to say something intelligent and to reach outside the specific sphere of crime and punishment to make wider social and political points.

Perhaps taking hints from HBO’s superb series The Wire, American Gangster follows the careers of Serpico-esque Police Detective Richie Roberts and titular criminal Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), until eventually the former – as head of a joint narcotics taskforce – sets out to take down the latter, now risen to become the most successful drug dealer in New York. 

It’s based on true events, and the one aspect that disappoints is that American Gangster doesn’t manage to sustain its narrative energy all the way through.  At one point Scott tries to build tension for a twist that, if you know anything of the true-life events will be no surprise, and the first third suffers particularly from setting up situation and character that will only pay off much later.  It could easily have been trimmed, too; do we really, for example, need to see Detective Roberts battling for custody of his son?  Though it’s for the most part solid and often good, there are other frustrations with Steven Zaillian’s script too: most annoyingly that he can’t make a point without having one of his characters just come out and say it. 

Script and pacing niggles aside, though, it’s hard to find fault.  Washington is as good here as he’s ever been, as is Crowe, and either of them could justifiably walk away with prizes at Oscar time.  Scott, meanwhile, shows more directorial acumen than we’ve seen from him in a long time.  The brutality and gritty setting mean that he can’t get too diverted by pretty shots of scenery, and has to focus on storytelling instead.  It’s a reminder of how tremendous an artist he is at the top of his game, and a remarkable return to form for someone who just turned seventy.  American Gangster is perhaps the best crime film of recent years, (which taking into account my earlier list is truly saying something), and is good enough at its best to stand amongst the seventies classics it references.