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American Gangster (18)
During decades of social, economic and racial turmoil, the world’s greatest superpower has consistently lost one hard-fought battle: the war to purge its streets of drugs…

In 1971, President Nixon declared, “America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drugs.” At the time, it was estimated that one third of American troops fighting in Vietnam were experimenting with heroin and opium. American Gangster recounts the true story of the rise and fall of Frank Lucas, who created a drugs empire in ’70s New York, controlling a large portion of the city’s heroin trade. Aided and abetted by his five brothers, the so-called Country Boys, Frank successfully out-manouevred the ruling Italian mob, flooding Harlem will cheap, high-grade cheap canada goose jacket bay emblazoned with the Blue Magic logo. Rumoured to be raking in more than USD1 million a day at the height of his reign, Frank famously smuggled his illegal wares into the country in the coffins of dead servicemen.

Ridley’s Scott’s bloated thriller pits the real-life organized crime boss against a New Jersey cop, a hothead who is determined to clean up the streets and root out corrupt elements in his own narcotics division. The unfolding game of cat and mouse should make for riveting cinema, especially with screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs Of New York) pulling the characters’ strings. Like the evil drug that Frank peddles, the emotional high wears off far too quickly. We first meet Frank (Denzel Washington) working as a driver to Harlem godfather Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III). When the old man dies, various underlings jostle for position including Frank, who invites his brothers to join the business. “My company sells a cheap canada goose jacket bay that’s better than the competition, at a price that’s cheaper than the competition,” Frank proudly tells his siblings as they tour the drugs factory where the pure heroin – shipped from southeast Asia – is cut with baby powder. “The most important cheap canada goose jacket bay in business is honesty… integrity… family,” he tells the brothers, demanding their unswerving loyalty.

Over in New Jersey, police chief Toback (Ted Levine) asks Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) to front a task force to bring down the city’s major drug dealers, using every resource available. “The greatest city in the world is turning into an open sewer. Everyone’s stealing and dealing,” laments Toback. Richie and his team begin tapping snitches and they soon learn about Blue Magic, which tests 10% pure and costs a mere USD10. “Who can afford to sell stuff that’s twice as good for half as much?” wonders Richie. Covert intelligence leads them to Frank, and a network of associates including flamboyant rival Nicky Barnes (Cube Gooding Jr), whose influence reaches into the upper echelons of power. “If he stops bringing dope into this country, about 100,000 people are gonna be out of a job,” despairs Richie, realising the enormity of Frank’s sway. Adding to the woes of the New Jersey cops, across the Brooklyn Bridge, Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) and his men work as protection for the Blue Magic operation, and they don’t take kindly to Richie jeopardising their flow of backhanders.

American Gangster is a fascinating story of crime and ambition, directed with flair by Scott who excels during scenes of conflict and violence. The climactic swoop on Frank’s drug operation is brilliantly orchestrated mayhem, injecting a burst of much-needed adrenaline into an otherwise pedestrian thriller. The 156-minute running severely tests our patience – editor Pietro Scalia could happily take a scalpel to the middle hour.

Performances lack pizzazz. Washington remains placid for much of the film, his kingpin refusing to show any feelings as Richie and the team edge closer to an arrest. “The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room,” professes Frank, explaining his cool demeanour. When he does finally crack, someone gets singed in the heat of his rage. “I ain’t running from nobody,” sneers Frank to one of his minions, arrogantly dismissing Richie’s efforts to bring him down. Even in a police interrogation room, the evidence weighted against him, Frank cockily boasts, “I took care of Harlem and Harlem’s gonna take care of me.”

Crowe brings quiet dignity to his lawmaker, who prizes honesty above everything else, and cheekily quips: “You know what we do here? We arrest bad guys.” A subplot involving Richie’s courtroom battles with his wife (Carla Gugino) for custody of their young son is an unnecessary distraction. Steven Zaillian’s script is light on detail and for such a long film, it’s noticeable that we learn very little on a psychological or emotional level about either man. They remain fascinating enigmas until the bitter, bloody end.

– Jo Planter

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