Movie review: Crime caper is no classic |

Movie review: Crime caper is no classic

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily

“American Gangster” is all bark, no bite.

The rise and fall of the criminal in American society is a theme already explored by many contemporary films, and for the most part, done better. The blend of tragedy and triumph in this genre satisfies a certain need in our culture, but recently seems overplayed. Blow is the perfect example of a film that combined a true story with comedy, drama and an incredible soundtrack, yet never lacked in the underlying theme that crime doesn’t pay, even when the criminals are normal people just like you and I.

Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) directs with a straightforward approach that is somewhat refreshing given the subject matter. It’s not bogged down by fancy theatrics or plot devices, it’s just a classic story ” but one that we’ve all heard before.

Harlem in the ’70s was a dangerous place. Gangsters control their private empires throughout the city and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is the understudy of a kingpin viewed as the “Robin Hood of Harlem” by those on his turf. When his mentor suddenly dies of a heart attack, it’s up to Lucas to step in and take over the business, which he does with a calculated ease and authority that instantly makes him a high-profile criminal and celebrity.

Lucas takes a trip to Thailand where he sets up a heroin-purchasing plan that eliminates the middleman, allowing him to sell a better product on his streets at a lower price than the competition. The drugs he sells begin to tear apart the neighborhood, as overdoses and violent crime become an epidemic. Lucas appears to be okay with this though, because with his newfound wealth and power he is able to provide for his family and stay above the law.

Working the local anti-drug agency is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a good cop who never cheats in his work but has no problem cheating on his wife or ignoring his son. He is put in charge of a task force designed specifically to bring down big dogs like Lucas, and he immerses himself in the job at the expense of everything else in his life.

The two sides of the law eventually clash, but not before we discover that half of the New York police department is corrupt and both Lucas’s and Roberts’ personal lives are starting to unravel at a monumental pace.

This film does dabble with themes of human nature. For instance, just because one wears a badge does not mean he’s a “good guy,” and we also see that even the biggest monsters love their family. Without spoiling the end of the story, let’s just say that everybody learns his or her lessons the hard way.

The action comes carefully spaced out with the exception of a few brutal moments; the focus is mostly on the two main characters as each tries to do their job to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, this makes for stereotyping in the tradition of Serpico and Scarface, as well as mostly one-dimensional character development. The fact that the film is based on a true story doesn’t make it any more potent either. There is no sense of social or moral urgency, so the impact of the film fades quickly after it’s over. “American Gangster” succeeds in telling a ripe historical story, but fails in becoming an instant classic.

Arts and Entertainment writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or

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