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American Gangster has lofty goals, and at times goes above an average genre film. All of Ridley Scotts films explicitly deal with morality, and implicitly with spirituality. This film is definitely heavy on trying to show us moral juxtaposition, with the likeable drug lord, and the loser cop; more complicatedly we see, in graphic detail, the results of the drugs, and spend a good amount of time seeing the cop’s family falling apart. While the film seems to forgive both men of their shortcomings, it is the corrupt cops, the protectors who fail in their duty, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, who are dealt the most severe blow.
The film is set in the ‘70’s, when the real life story took place, and the film seems to pay homage to the great 70’s crime films. Basically you have two films in one: the rise of Lucas, told like Godfather part II, a story of honor and family amidst violence , prejudice, and corruption; and the story of the man chasing him, which is structured almost exactly like The French Connection, minus the car chase. This creates an interesting dynamic, further exploring the moral implications of each man’s actions, and while it makes the film rather long, it feels right.
The problem is that Ridley Scott’s film is too polished. It does not have the jittery quality of Friedkin’s film, it doesn’t spend enough time with the Lucas family to have the emotional breadth of The Godfather films, or show the moral outrage and paranoia of Serpico, which the film references in its third act. Rather, this is a standard crime film stylistically, that takes no chances, and while it gets everything right, it just feels too clinical for such a rough story, in such a rough place, at such a rough time. This is a film that at its worst could have been a kitschy, neo-blaxploitaiton film, and at its best one of the all-time great crime films. Instead it’s a solid picture, and a solid entry into the genre, but it doesn’t have a whole lot that really seems to separate it from the rest.