Five days before he was assassinated, civil rights martyr and political activist Martin Luther King spoke to Harry Belafonte and said: "America has lost the little morality it may have once had, and I sit here deeply concerned that we're integrating into a burning house". Director Ridley Scott fans the flames of the aforementioned structural inferno with 'American Gangster', an enthralling, albeit narratively familiar, biopic chronicling the life & times of notorious 70's underworld legend Frank Lucas (another powerful performance by Denzel Washington) and his decade long clash with dogged narcotics detective Richie Roberts (a subtle & brooding Russell Crowe). Some critics were underwhelmed by Scott's bombastic production design coupled with the low key, slow burn execution of Lucas's story but 'American Gangster', as its title denotes, is an intra-national dialogue about culture, race and ideology. Frank Lucas was the embodiment of style; one who walked the well trodden path from drug dealing underling to undisputed king of Harlem; employing his ruthless entrepreneurial skills, (traits learnt during the bitter, ongoing experience of imposed socio-economic deprivation / racism at the hands of white America a.k.a. 'The Man') Lucas buys pure 'Blue Magic' heroin from its source (i.e. South Asia) smuggling product in the flag wrapped caskets of U.S. troops shipped back from Vietnam. An ironic exchange of the criminal powers that be exporting death abroad through war, and the criminal businessman at home importing death through drugs. Frank Lucas was an archetypal gangster of his age; as recognizable and flamboyant a figure as any Mafioso button. His reign and distinctive sartorial style going onto inspire movies like Gordon Parks Jr's 'Super Fly' (1972) and Larry Cohen's 'Black Caesar' (1973), though some may find Ridley Scott's glamorous, sometimes aspirational, depiction of his life detracts from some the era's real heroes e.g. Muhammed Ali, Angela Davis, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, Huey Newton et al. For if Scott were to make an honest film about any of the above, he would have to criticise the ingrained prejudicial policies of his adopted homeland, something that 'Blackhawk Down' (2001) and 'G.I. Jane' (1997) suggest he'll never do. Questionable politics aside, 'American Gangster' is as well made and entertaining a picture as 'Donnie Brasco' (1997), 'Scarface' (1983), 'Serpico' (1970) and 'Casino' (1995) well acted with an intense / effortlessly charismatic performance by Denzel Washington, sporadic bursts of violence, cool soul-funk soundtrack and Proairetic codes not dissimilar to Michael Mann's 'Heat' (1995) this is one gangster worth bailing out.
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