Oscar Ritual 2008 : AMERICAN GANGSTER
Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Ruby Dee) and Art Direction
The casting of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in opposing character roles ought to be enough to make a film excellent. Adding a gritty storyline to that mix is certainly a good idea, as is fleshing out the cast with a force of talented actors in unexpected roles. With so much going for it, I expected American Gangster to blow me away. Instead, I simply found it an engaging story of the lives of two men.
I opted to wait for this film to be released on DVD rather than heading to the cinema because I knew it would be filled with images and language that I would not care to endure for long. I wanted some control over what I saw and heard, knowing that the subject of the film would provide plenty of graphic elements. Washington and Crowe were my reasons for seeing the film, and they were enough to keep me interested throughout. The story of Frank Lucas, notorious Harlem drug lord of the 70s, is compelling, whether played by Washington or not, but what is equally compelling, and what gives American Gangster some heart, is the story of Crowe’s character, Richie Roberts. Roberts was a New Jersey detective who led a special investigative unit determined to bring down the prevalent drug trade, its leaders, and, by association, the crooked cops who perpetuated the business. The movie tells these two stories in parallel, finally bringing Washington and Crowe into the same room at the climax of the film. Essentially, this film is the tale of two men on opposite sides of the same situation.
American Gangster is a compelling film, to be sure, and it is filled with spot-on performances. Though Ruby Dee was singled out for her supporting work — an honor that, in my opinion, had more to do with her status than with the performance itself — the movie is filled with memorable characters and scenes. Josh Brolin, in particular, is captivating as a crooked-as-they-come NYC detective, and he more than holds his own while standing toe-to-toe with both Washington and Crowe. Often, Brolin stole the scenes from under them, and that was a wonderful treat for me, a longtime Brolin fan. In many ways, American Gangster even works as an ensemble piece, although the characters of Lucas and Roberts always dictate the action. For this reason, and many others, the film stands out.
The thoughts that filled my head while watching this movie were mostly about the enormity of Crowe’s talent. Yes, Washington is always, always terrific; there isn’t a role in which he is not riveting. But Crowe really shone in Gangster, presenting Roberts in a way that is reminiscent of his work as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind: his mannerisms, his walk, his body language, and the emotion in his eyes created a rich portrait of the detective who sought truth and honesty in his world. Watching Crowe was the real treasure of this film, and though I will likely never watch it again due to its graphic nature, I felt satisfied in having heard the story.
image from Rotten Tomatoes