Ridley Scott's American Gangster has many similar parallels to Derek Yee's Protege, in that it's a story about the scourge of drugs, and each containing the respective insights into the entire production, processing and distribution processes, stemming again from material sources in South East Asia. While the latter is a fictional account, American Gangster is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the black drug lord whose meteoric rise to power was deemed incredulous because of race and colour, and the story of the detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) whose team had broken through the complex web of mob dealings to take down the gangsters, as well as their corrupt own.
This epic movie, clocking in at slightly more than 2.5 hours, takes its time to tell the respective stories, which on their own could be standalone equivalents, no doubt boosted by the powerhouse performances by award winning actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, who is into his third collaboration with Ridley after movies like Gladiator and A Good Year. While the story may seem straight-forward without any spectacular twists and turns, it's based solely on the credible performances as well as the re-creation of the late 60s-early 70s environment of New York, where blatant corruption seemed to be the norm of the day.
Crowe's Richie perhaps have the lesser screen time of the two, like an Elliot Ness equivalent in being the incorruptible cop in a corrupt force, whose reputation of turning in a million dollars instead of pocketing it, preceded him. This made him an automatic choice in creating his own squad of Untouchables, assembling a team of similarly principled men to work outside the system, to go after the big fish. While his boy scout character might seem boring, here's where the script by Steven Zaillian adds a little flavour in throwing in shades of grey. While Richie is honest to his job, a little examination into his private life has him being quite the ladies' man, as well as struggling with his estranged wife to fight for custody of their child.
Washington's Frank Lucas on the other hand, had the meat, given after all the movie is about the crime lord. The first hour charted his rise and it is the buildup that makes this movie so compelling as it tapers toward the inevitable finale, as you discover how deep the rot of corruption is, and having links to the Vietnam War and the army. His "Blue Magic" heroin product sells for half the price and double the potency as middlemen are cut off, and shipment is relatively free - I'd dare say this is ingenious, and makes a monkey out of the authorities.
And it is his segment that proved to be more interesting of the two - ok, so everyone would like to know how he did what he did, versus a straight cop's quest to putting away those involved with the entire business. There were many fine points made especially for those who are in the business of being crooked. If you notice all the high profile corporate fraud cases, most are done in because money corrupts one into an opulent lifestyle, bringing uncalled for attention to oneself. Here, Lucas' principle is similar, to keep a low profile, but alas everyone has their moment of oversight and carelessness.
To continue my admiration of the guy's work ethics, and probably because of the nature of the business, no one is trusted except for family. I guess a crime family is easier to raise since blood is supposedly more trustworthy than random hired hands. While we see Richie's assembly of a few good men for his cause of righteousness, we also witness the creation of a mob family from scratch, but as we all know, time will tell if the kinks within the family can be worked out, or go against the ruler with an iron fist. Scott somehow seemed to emphasise family for a fair bit, with periodic shots for comparison put side by side for the audience to form their conclusions.
Don't be expecting any major scenes of killing, choosing instead to be based on powerful dialogue as the gun battles here are few and far between, usually over as quickly as they start because Frank Lucas doesn't fall into the usual fictional villains' lapse into monologues. The action sequences might be few, but they are sure pack their punch despite their short duration. Everything's paced rather nicely, and I particularly enjoyed the entire buildup, though the ending felt a little rushed because there are little that could be elaborated at that point. Fans of Denzel and Russell who want to see these two strong actors share the same screen/scene, will be a tad disappointed, as they do so only toward the finale, lasting no more than 10 minutes, but those turn out to be the gem they were, so savour every moment of it properly.
The second mobster movie this week, it's a difficult toss up between Ridley Scott's American Gangster and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. If you're tired of blood and gore with a twist, and would prefer something based on a true story told in a more straightforward manner, then American Gangster will be your choice. IF I may say, there's nothing really spectacular about the plot, but it works, thanks to Ridley Scott's confident direction, and the A-plus performances by Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.