American Gangster the movie: Thrilling to the point of exhaustion

By Andrew Goodhouse

Remember those advertisements from decades past which energetically touted films: “You’ll laugh! You’ll cry!” or “Shocking!” Nowadays our chums in the advertising game seem to have taken to describing the movie itself or hinting at its message rather than declaring our probable reaction. I think of the poster for “Michael Clayton,” which is a blurry photo of George Clooney with the words “The truth can be altered” emblazoned over it in red letters. In spite of current trends, I believe a film like “American Gangster” would be well-served by gushy declarations of how we can expect to feel while we watch it. But then I ask myself (maybe you do too) if the film industry feels uncomfortable with prophesying our response because the fun I have while watching “American Gangster” is mostly a result of the violence and suspense portrayed onscreen. “Should we really enjoy watching this?” movie executives might ask themselves. “American Gangster” is directed by Ridley Scott and it is pretty long. The movie is the tale of Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, a powerful drug lord in Harlem in the 1970s and of Richie Roberts (portrayed by Russell Crowe), a New Jersey policeman who, unlike many of his fellow cops, is very honest in his job. In the film, we see Lucas gliding through glamorous nightclubs and living in considerable, although not over the top, comfort. In contrast, Roberts has a bad haircut and languishes in a low-rent lifestyle. Perhaps one of Scott’s messages is the apparent unlikelihood of a schlub like Roberts ousting Lucas from his glimmering palace. The director gives the viewer the storylines of each man separately, anticipating the climax of their inevitable meeting. Lucas’ half of the film’s story is the most interesting, dealing with his speedy ascent from mob henchman to criminal emperor. I wasn’t super-impressed with either Washington’s or Crowe’s performance; both actors carry their roles serviceable and unremarkably.

So many things happen in the movie that I found myself basically exhausted and disinterested when Lucas and Roberts finally do encounter one another. These “things” I have teasingly alluded to in the previous sentence comprise Lucas’ ascent to dizzying power and Roberts’ relentless mission to stop corruption within the police force and to arrest drug lords. A memorable sequence occurs as Lucas stands on a sidewalk and points a gun at a man’s head. The man skeptically asks if Lucas is going to kill him right there. There then occurs one of those moments wherein the audience waits on edge to see if the potential killer will really pull the trigger. Surely, at such moments, the scene’s tension dominates every viewer’s thoughts. I suppose this is why we call it “suspense;” it’s as if the film is suspending us over a long fall. Anyway, Lucas does kill the man. This action triggered genuine, irrational surprise in me. I was expecting him to do it, but I wasn’t sure when it was going to happen and I couldn’t prepare myself for the sound of Lucas’ gun. My reaction was a silent, involuntary gasp that made me feel self-conscious.

So if you’re looking for similar excitement, you might find it in this entertaining spectacle. You can come up with your own retro-chic exclamations of what this movie will do to your emotions while you see it. You could even turn it into a game with your friends! Who can think of the best one?