American Gangster (2007)
As a portrait of the moods and mechanisms of the big city mob, American Gangster treads familiar territory. This is one of the reasons why we struggle to maintain interest through every connection and associate of Frank Lucas' in this intriguing and interesting, but somewhat ill-proportioned film by Ridley Scott. In magnitude and weight, American Gangster is a typical Scott picture, with strong personalities battling it out in cynical environments. The story of Frank Lucas has many interesting aspects, such as the unlikeliness of him building his cartel in the middle of the Sicilian mob's territory, his extremely effective no-nonsense all-business methods, or the fact the he was (arguably) the first black organized crime boss of this magnitude. However, what is not particularly interesting is the man's rather dull personality. The same can largely be said about his adversary, Detective Richie Roberts (played standoffishly by Russell Crowe), who was one of few non-corrupt police officers in New York in the 1970s. One of Ridley Scott's mistakes is that he dwells to much on the other aspects of his two protagonists' life, such as the uninspired love story between Lucas and Eva, or the customary "cop has no time for his kid" séance that I suspect applied to 98% of every divorced cop in the 1970s.
The continuously interesting but rarely remarkable American Gangster has some very powerful sequences scattered around its lengthy running time. One is the technicalities of the narcotics and the smuggling, in which Lucas diverged from the average dope dealer. Another is the relation between Lucas and his mother, played by the magnificent Ruby Dee, and culminating with a fantastic scene after the matriarch feels her son has gone too far. Dee's compelling acting provides the film's emotional zenith. There is also quality in the verbal and tactical combat between Lucas and Roberts towards the end. It shows how two opponents remain utterly professional even after a potentially fatal shootout. Their mutual respect and selfishness is an interesting portrait of how two people operating on different sides of the law not necessarily are basically different. What they have in common is that the sympathy they have for the victims of crime is only nominal - both hardened by the brutal urban life they were a product of.