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Unoriginal ‘Gangster’ can’t move beyond predecessors

Ryan Raffin | Monday, November 5, 2007

Unless you live the life of a hermit in Wyoming, odds are you’ve heard of the Ridley Scott-directed “American Gangster.” And it is, as you might have guessed, a gangster movie set in America. The advertising onslaught for it was near-unavoidable, creating quite a bit of buzz. Starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, both Oscar winners, there is definite star power helping to build the hype. Throw in the ever clichéd “based on a true story” tagline, and it has all the makings of a box office smash.

None of this matters, though, if the movie itself is bad. Word of mouth can make or break a film. “American Gangster” really breaks no new ground, as the gangster genre is almost completely saturated at this point. Luckily, it is fairly solid, maybe even getting some acting nominations at the Academy Awards.

Washington plays Frank Lucas, a self-made heroin kingpin and the title character. It’s a very compelling portrayal of a man who takes a business entrepreneur’s approach to dealing drugs – and becomes wildly successful as a result. The long run time of the film allows for a fleshing out of the character: His rise, rule and fall are all chronicled here in a fairly standard way. Washington’s acting is superb, bringing complete believability to the actions of his character.

The businesslike demeanor he gives off as he carries out his dealings lights up the screen. His caring attitude toward his family holds up through the entire film; not once does it seem anything but genuine. This is an excellent performance that will only add to Washington’s reputation, though clearly he does not need to establish himself as a quality actor.

Opposite to the gangster is Russell Crowe as the alliteratively named Richie Roberts, a by-the-books New York City police officer. Watching the two work against each other without ever crossing paths is intriguing, and their meeting toward the end of the film is a fine payoff. Roberts faces many difficulties in attempting to take down Lucas’ empire; his fellow cops are corrupt (surprise, surprise) and his opponent has the whole city in his pocket. Roberts has his share of personal problems, with a messy divorce and a nasty womanizing streak; it appears the two go hand in hand.

Though Crowe’s acting and story are overshadowed by Washington’s part, Crowe is quite good nonetheless. It’s tough not to root for him in this role – he’s an underdog working in a corrupt system, trying to make a case against a man who seems untouchable.

The main problem with the movie is that nothing is new. Everything seen here has already been done, and often quite a bit better. Look only to “The Departed” for acting that is just as good, and with a deeper plot. Look at “The Sopranos,” “Goodfellas,” “Scarface” and the “Godfather” series, and those are just the names that come to mind immediately. “American Gangster” does nothing that its predecessors haven’t already. This unoriginality never becomes boring, but the viewer is certainly not going to be challenged by what they see. It is an entertaining film with some stupendous acting by the leads, but nothing more.

The film is held together mostly by Washington and Crowe. Without their performances, “American Gangster” wouldn’t garner a second look in a crowded genre. The plot follows a relatively formulaic rise-and-fall arc, but is still fun watch. The action is standard fare, with drive-by shootings and kicked-in doors.

Sure, it’s all been done, but what hasn’t? This isn’t an art house film – it’s a blockbuster-popcorn type. Its biggest sin is being in a genre that has produced some of the greatest and most innovative films of all time.

“American Gangster” lives in the shadow of giants, and it obviously suffers from it. The director and writers can’t help but be influenced by what came before it. Given the other pabulum being produced by Hollywood these days, it actually looks pretty good. The acting is excellent, but it’s impossible to get the memory of Scorsese, Coppola and company out of your mind when watching “Gangster.” It’s a solid film from start to finish, but nothing you haven’t seen before.