Movie Review

American Gangster a.k.a. “The Country Boys,” “Frank Lucas,” “The Superfly”

MPAA Rating: R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality

Reviewed by: Taran Gingery
CONTRIBUTOR

Very Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults
Genre:
Biography, Crime, Drama
Length:
2 hr. 37 min.
Year of Release:
2007
USA Release:
November 2, 2007 (wide—3,000 theaters)
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Copyright, Universal Pictures
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Universal Pictures

Murder

Anger

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Featuring: Denzel Washington
“Training Day”
Russell Crowe
“Gladiator”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, RZA, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, Ted Levine
Director: Ridley Scott
“Gladiator”
Producer: Nicholas Pileggi, Branko Lustig, Karen Kehela-Sherwood
Distributor: Universal Pictures

“Based on a true story”

It is the late 1960s and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) seems to be living the good life. He is polite and charming, dresses well, lives in a fine apartment in late 1960s New York, has a beautiful Puerto Rican wife, and loves and supports his large extended family. He is also, as described by Detective Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe), ‘the most dangerous man walking the streets of New York City.’

Frank Lucas is a heroin drug lord. He goes directly to the source of heroin, deep in the jungles of war-torn Vietnam, and smuggles shipload upon shipload of drugs into the United States, sometimes going so far as to hide it in the coffins of young soldiers. His drug empire has grown and stretched out its arms into every part of society, but like every empire throughout history, Lucas’ empire must fall and Detective Roberts is determined to be the man to bring it down.

Going into a movie with the word ‘gangster’ in the title, I hardly expected this to be a peaceful movie and it isn’t, but I didn’t find it as blood-drenched as last year’s “The Departed.” The opening scene features a man drenched in oil, lit on fire and then shot. Other scenes have people beaten, shot point-blank in the head or from a distance, with brief splatters of blood or people lying in pools of blood. A policeman slaps a woman and later shoots a dog. Obviously, drug use is central to the story and thus graphic scenes feature the preparation and injection of heroin and the fatal consequences of its abuse.

Even more disturbing is the gratuitous nudity and pervasive language. The f-word is thrown around more than 100 times, many with ‘mother’ attached to it, as well as the s-word, and various other colorful phrases. God’s name is also abused many times. As for the nudity, two or three scenes take place in clubs with bikini-clad women dancing or serving drinks, and the women who prepare the heroin for selling work fully nude so they can’t steal any, resulting in many shots of full frontal nudity. Elsewhere, Roberts and a woman have sex standing up, with graphic noises and movement, but no nudity.

Amidst all this violence, profanity and drugs, it was hard to find anyone honorable. Sure, Lucas is a family man who loves his wife and his mother very much and would protect them from harm at any cost. He is also a hard, bitter man who has no qualms about shooting a man in the head in a public square or bashing a nephew’s head against a piano for making a mistake. Frank Lucas is a man who goes to church to sing Amazing Grace with his mother one day and collects thousands of dollars in drug money the next. There is nothing honorable about him.

Ritchie Roberts is a politically uncorrupted man in a corrupt world, where the cops are not above taking bribes from drug runners and where a man is mocked for not taking for himself a million dollars found in the back of an abandoned car. He is set on bringing Lucas to justice as much as Lucas is on breaking the law. As a family man, though, he fails. He has affairs with other women and isn’t a very good father and his knows and admits this, but he doesn’t try to change. However, in spite of this and his often short temper and foul mouth, he should be noted for his loyalty, courage and sense of justice.

In spite of all this, though, I found the movie to be generally dark and without a sense of hope. A hint of redemption for any of these characters, be they cop or criminal, was simply not present. To be sure, historically and dramatically, this film is very interesting and intense and exceptionally strong performances from Washington and Crowe will probably garner attention come Oscar night, but all of that is not enough for me to recommend the often violent, frequently profane American Gangster to anyone, except discerning adult audiences.

Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Extreme / Sex/Nudity: Extreme

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.


Viewer Comments
Comments available:
Negative
Negative—I think Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe did an excellent job in this film, and the film was overall excellent, but the language and all the nudity scenes were so bad it prevented a positive rating.
My Ratings: Very Offensive / 1
—Jonathan Tran, age 24
Negative—This movie was overall a disappointment. First off there is so much unnecessary nudity and language in this movie that it’s utterly repulsive. I honestly should of walked out of this movie. Second off, the overall story was much slower than the previews led you to believe, and although great performances by both Russel Crowe and Denzel Washington, I simply can’t recommend this movie to any person who claims to follow Jesus.
My Ratings: Extremely Offensive / 4
—Tim Whitaker, age 19
Negative—While Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe gave convincing performances in the movie and showed once again they are good actors, it wasn’t anything above their other movies to stand out. The extreme vulgar scenes of nudity really ruined the whole experience—it was completely unnecessary and looked forced and was disgusting. I was going to and really wish I had walked out of this movie. I do NOT recommend “American Gangster” to anyone.
My Ratings: Extremely Offensive / 3½
—Bryenna, age 25
Neutral
Neutral—I am amazed that in all three of the negative reviews, not one person mentioned graphic violence as a negative aspect of this movie. I mean people and animals getting shot in the head. This is a huge problem in movies and television, there is simply too many guns, too much blood, too much degradation and sexism. Who really wants to see this? It’s discusting, disturbing, and it has a hugely negative effect on our society.

Sure, I agree that in “American Gangster” there is an overabundance of “unnecessary nudity.” The first shot of nude women with masks over their mouths cutting heroin was mildly entertaining. But there are maybe four or five more scenes with the naked girls just and it’s like, ok, we get it! The nude women are portrayed in a ditzy, untrustworthy manner ('They are naked so they don’t steal anything' -Denzel’s character), and most of them are heroin junkies. Yes, as a female, I was slightly offended by this degrading portrayal of women.

But, let’s get our priorities straight. An image of a bullet going through someone’s head is far more disturbing and does have an effect on our society. When we repeatedly see these images in the media, we percieve it as “normal,” or just a part of our culture, like fast food. Not healthy, but we still pay for it.
My Ratings: Better than Average / 5
—Amanda, age 27
Positive
Positive—I’m surprised this movie got so many negative comments whereas “The Departed,” which in my opinion was far more offensive, recieved many positive comments. Of course this film is not for the faint of heart, but it did not glorify the gangster lifestyle. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe gave compelling performances which one doesn’t see too often anymore. The nudity that the reviewer refers to was not glorified, but was simply shown as a matter of fact in the drug world, although I do agree that the brief sex scene was out of place. Yes, there was the use of the F-word, but no more so than you would expect to hear in a movie of this type and far less than was heard in the aforementioned The Departed or even Ladykillers.
My Ratings: Offensive / 3½
—Reba, age 40+
Comments from young people
Positive—Well, I’m sure that anyone could guess from the summary details of this movie that it would be a mixed bag. On the one hand, you knew there would be good production values with director Ridley Scott and main actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. On the other hand, you knew the moral quality likely would not be high due to the story centering on a heroine kingpin. The only thing that truly surprised me in this is just how good the movie was production-wise. For the sake of discernment choice, I’ll lay out the pros and cons of this movie.

In the appropriateness department, it is obvious that an R-rated movie will not be appropriate for a young child no matter what the subject (though there are some that will be mature enough to handle some R-rated movies). This movie earns its R-rating in violence, language and sexual content. The violence features people getting shot in the head (one in the leg), one man burning and getting shot, Lucas beating up some of his relatives, and a dog getting shot offscreen. The language features many cases of colorful language (mostly f***, along with s***, and a few more mild ones) along with a handful of cases where GD is used. There are cases of nudity in the movie, but there is nothing truly overtly sexual about the nudity. These instances are simply portrayed as matter-of-factly (like the nudity in Amistad). However, there is one overtly sexual scene featuring Roberts and his female lawyer along with two instances of implied sex.

I would have to disagree with the reviewer concerning honorable things about the main characters. They mention good things about them, but then proceeds to highlight the negatives. If the standard for considering someone honorable is whether or not they were sinful, then everyone can be counted out except for Jesus Christ and the standard ultimately becomes useless for this purpose. Of course they have their flaws, they are human after all. I would say Frank Lucas was quite honorable for someone who was a kingpin. He is indeed a family man and he cares for his region of New York (Harlem). I’m not saying this absolves him of being a drug lord, but considering this position, he is quite honorable. But, of course, the most honorable is Ritchie Roberts. In a world of corrupt cops, he remains true to his ethical code. He earns a reputation for performing an honorable act that almost no one else would do. Yes, he does have a problem with his sex life, but if you wish to say this takes all honor away from him, should I remind you of King David or (especially) Rahab? It is said that he doesn’t try to change from being a bad father, but at the time in the movie when he admits he is a bad father, it is too late for him to change. (BTW, he doesn’t have a short temper, he’s really quite calm). But the reviewer does admit that Roberts should be noted for his good qualities. In the end, I consider both of these men to be honorable to some extent. Indeed, it is their ethical code that separates them from their peers. Also, to say this movie is without a sense of hope is odd. After all, justice prevails in the end, another evil empire falls, and we see that there is always a consequence for criminals.

In production value, this movie is amazing. Washington and Crowe give their usual excellent performances and the critics should keep them in mind for some awards later. Like any good historical movie, American Gangster successfully makes us feel like we are back in the early 70’s. Director Ridley Scott (one of my favorites) has once again done a good job of getting us immersed into the world of this movie, which is a world of druggies, drug empires, corrupt cops, and two men on opposite sides of the law that stand apart from their peers.

Overall, I give the movie a slightly balanced moral rating. I say that the honorable things about these men and the good themes of this movie are enough to balance out with the moral wrongs in this movie. Indeed, isn’t justice being properly served and having a good ethical code greater moral goods than pervasive cussing and some sexuality are moral wrongs.
My Ratings: Average / 5
—Ross Harriman, age 18