Epic crime story packs a punch in ‘American Gangster’

Director Ridley Scott (“G.I. Jane,” “Thelma and Louise”) has done it again. The king of conquering genre films tackles yet another one (i.e., cops and gangsters) with great aplomb.

But be forewarned, this film is not a plot-driven story. Instead it is a character-driven piece, and as such it can seem a bit long at times, especially since it clocks in at two-and-a-half hours.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the beginning of the film starts with no introduction to the characters either, but starts “in media res,” during the middle of the narrative. This can be a bit confusing at first as neither Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington, “Training Day,” “Deja Vu”) or Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe, “A Beautiful Mind,” “Gladiator”) have any frame of reference or correlation to each other. There is no relationship between their story lines for almost an hour of screen time, and even then it takes almost another hour before their plots genuinely connect to complete the progress of the film.

It is this introduction that could be trimmed to cut down on the length of the overall film, but ultimately it is all valuable footage that helps support the rest of the film. And the audience is captivated by the events on the screen anyway because the characters are fascinating in their own contexts.

This is no surprise as the screenwriter, Steven Zaillian (“All the King’s Men,” “Gangs of New York”), has some serious writing credits to his name. He excels at this type of film and manages to write an incredible drama with this one.

“American Gangster” is cleverly reminiscent of past films, both in the writing and the film’s texture. It dances around the plot of “Serpico” and directly references “The French Connection” both by name and with a background shot set underneath the renowned train track where that famous car chase took place.

Yet this is not a thriller or action movie, but a historical drama. The film is based on the true life of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas during the 1960s. Audiences might feel disappointed in this regard if they were depending on the insinuated plot from previews. Despite its length, confusing introduction and what appears to be an initial lack of plot, “American Gangster” captures and holds the audience’s attention.

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And despite the setup for where this film is going, the ending throws audiences for a complete loop. Yet again, Scott defies the genre and the audience’s expectations to surprise viewers with his originality as adirector.

It only helps to aid his agenda that he has such amazing actors cast in this film. Washington and Crowe do a phenomenal job of capturing their characters, but it is when they are on screen together at the same time that one can really see their dynamism. There’s so much power in that scene toward the end of the film, one almost feels as if the screen will explode.

“American Gangster” may not have the same cultural impact as “Gladiator,” nor be as popular, but it still captures the audience’s attention – even for two and a half hours.