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A-list actors raise ‘Gangster’ to new heights

Tae Kang | Monday, November 5, 2007

In 2000, two of the biggest names in Hollywood starred in two of that year’s most inspirational films.

In “Remember the Titans,” Denzel Washington played no-nonsense football coach Herman Boone, who taught that water was for the weak and inspired “strong side, left side” chants in football fields everywhere.

In “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe won an Oscar playing Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and so forth. At the time, fans may have thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if these guys were in a movie together?”

Fast forward seven years, and you have “American Gangster,” a Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) film starring both Washington and Crowe.

Set in Harlem during the 1970s, “American Gangster” tells the story of Frank Lucas, the consummate family man who smuggled 100 percent pure heroin from Vietnam to rise above the Italian mafia.

Washington, who plays Lucas, returns to the role of the criminal with charm that garnered him an Oscar for 2001’s “Training Day.” In Ralph Lauren suits, Lucas preaches integrity and hard work, but the audience sees the results of his “hard work” during a montage of addicts to Lucas’ product, Blue Magic.

On the opposite side, Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the honest cop who would turn in $1 million in unmarked cash except that he is friends with mafia members. He is faithful to his job, but has a weakness for women. For Roberts, this is a heavyweight battle, à la Ali vs. Frazier, U.S. vs. Soviet Union or even Batman vs. Superman.

Much like Michael Mann’s action thriller “Heat,” which starred two big actors by the names of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, the two leads in “Gangster” do not share the screen until the film’s final minutes.

Rather, the audience gets an in-depth look at each man while watching the buildup to their showdown.

Scott’s film is not a showcase in blood and bullets, but rather a spectacular performance of two men on opposite sides of the law.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, “The Godfather,” we get a sense of how the Corleone family lived in the day-to-day: eating take-out Chinese, dancing at weddings – all while “going to the mattresses” and making offers that one can’t refuse. Scott also shows the family lives of both men: Lucas at the luxurious dinner table with his multitude of relatives (played by rappers T.I. and Common) and Roberts with his angry wife at the divorce proceeding.

There is an obvious dichotomy between the men throughout the film, and the movie is driven by strength and gravitas of the two characters and the performances by two actors at the top of their game.

Several years ago, Chris Rock said there were only four big-name stars left. Two of them are in this movie.

It would not be at all surprising if either name is called for a Best Leading Actor award several months from now. While it may lack the quantity of iconic moments in “The Godfather,” “American Gangster” contains acting at its finest and deftly deals with issues of power and corruption.In a season of three-quels and giant robots, this is the best film of the year.