Yesterday I saw American Gangster, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Washington plays a Harlem drug lord, a real-life figure, Frank Lucas, who uses the caskets of dead soldiers from Vietnam to smuggle heroin into the country. He then sells it, undiluted, for less than other drug dealers sell their diluted drugs. Crowe plays the ethical cop, Richie Roberts, who is appointed to clean up the local drug problem by finding and bringing down the men, like Lucas, who control the drug trade.

It’s the first big Oscar contender (as defined by the various Oscar predictions sites that I read: The Oscar Igloo, Everything Oscar, Awards Daily, Oscar Race 2007, and The Envelope — ok, so I read a lot of Oscar blogs; I’m a gay man: what do you expect?!) that’s come to Athens. PJ and I try to see all of the Oscar contenders each year, and the race is now on.

I liked American Gangster. Washington is great in his role. I am a big fan of his early work — I love Glory and earlier this year PJ introduced me to St Elsewhere, which I had never watched before. He’s always good, even if the film he’s in isn’t, but he’s great in American Gangster. Lucas is both a level-headed businessman who loves his family and a cold-blooded psychopath whose fuse can blow in a split second. Washington handles both aspects of the role with aplomb. I especially liked that he doesn’t overact the violent moments. Even though the character is out of control in these scenes, Washington isn’t. Watching him in this movie is watching a master craftsman.

Crowe is also very good, though his role isn’t as showy as Washington’s. Crowe can also be a great actor. The Sum of Us, in which he plays a gay man, was on Logo the other day, and it reminded me how likable he used to be — or at least that he used to play likable more often than he does now. This role is partly a return to the likable guy role, though the film also shows us Roberts’ personal troubles — he’s not a saint even though he’s scrupulously honest in his work. He’s in the middle of a divorce and a child custody battle (while attending law school at night ) when the movie begins. Crowe does a good job in showing this character’s more subtle complexities.

The supporting cast is also good. Ruby Dee plays Lucas’s mother, and Chiwetel Ejiofor plays one of his brothers, who become his henchmen and captains in the drug trade and distribution network he sets up. Ejiofor is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. He was absolutely great in Kinky Boots, another British film about working class people coming to terms with gay people (in the vein of Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, and, more accurately, Beautiful Thing). Josh Brolin is also good as a corrupt cop playing both sides in his effort for quick (and plentiful) cash.

Another thing that I like about the movie is that, while it’s set in the 1970s, the period sets, costumes, cars, etc. never take over the movie. Nor does the camera linger unnecessarily on them. Everything about the film feels like the 1970s, but it simply exists there; it doesn’t need to prove that it’s taking place there.

The soundtrack is also great. I especially like a song by Anthony Hamilton, “Do You Feel Me.” I’m already a fan of Hamilton’s, so hearing him in the movie was great. And this song is used well. Here’s the video:

As with almost all films, there were some problems with American Gangster. I thought the last fifteen or twenty minutes were especially rushed. Everything is going along in one direction and suddenly it shifts and the movie’s over. I thought they could have slowed the end down a bit.

The movie is based on a true story. I haven’t checked to see how accurate it is. I like it regardless. It’s a good movie and a definite Oscar contender.

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