In the pantheon of 70's style American crime films, Ridley Scott's 2007 American Gangster is a solid entry, but it's not great, and certainly no all-timer. There's a kind of undercooked quality to it that prevents it from rising to the level of French Connection, an inspiration American Gangster clearly wears on it's sleeve. That's partly because the film doesn't know if it wants to glorify or criticize the gangster lifestyle, and partly because Sir Ridley, while a talented filmmaker, simply doesn't understand American social mores, so the racial aspects of the story (out of which a significant amount of the drama flows) feel half-thought out. It also doesn't help that Scott wants every outdoor scene to take place in the middle of a snow flurry, even though the film was clearly shot sometime in August (seriously man, have the courtesy to digitally erase the green tree leaves if you're trying to convince me that it's the middle of December).
What keeps the film from cracking under the weight of its own dopey seriousness is the raw thundering power of Denzel Washington's mobster Frank Lucas, the understated badassitude of Russell Crowe's incorruptible cop Richie Roberts, and Josh Brolin's mustache. Also there's a conversation that occurs between Frank and Richie near the end of the film that just floors me every time I watch it. Frank Lucas has been finally captured and it turns out that he's become the biggest heroin dealer in New York, by far outclassing the Italian Mafioso's who want Frank's head on a platter. Richie, who has spent the past two years trying to nail Frank, finally has his chance to interrogate him.
What do you want me to do? Snitch, huh? I know you don't want me to give up no cops. What do you want? You want gangsters? Pick one. Jew gangsters? Mick gangsters? Guineas? They've been bleeding Harlem dry since they got off the boat, Richie. I don't give a fuck about no crime figures. You can have them.
I'll take them, too.
You'll take them, too? No, you didn't. You're talking about police. You want police? You want your own kind?
They're not my kind. They're in business with you, Frank, they ain't my kind. They ain't my kind like the Italians are not yours.
Take that Frank! The films take great pains to show us that Richie has a reputation as an untouchable, especially in comparison to Brolin's Detective Trupo who is basically selling the French Connection dope on the side to afford his big house and sporty car. To illustrate: early in the film, Richie and his partner discover almost a million dollars in cash stuffed in the trunk of a car. Instead of skimming a little off the top, like most cops in the early 70's would have, Richie turns it all in. Every cent. And that kind of incorruptibility makes him a target. His partner leaves him and no one will work with him. Eventually Richie is hired to head up a federal narco task force made up of other good cops and together they go after Frank. As a result of the above-conversation between Richie and Frank, 3/4 of the entire NYPD narcotics division is arrested for corruption.
And you know how they do it? Through good cop work. Investigations based on probable cause. Arrests based on valid warrants. Interrogations that don't violate the suspects' Miranda rights. I've seen the film about a dozen times and I haven't seen a single 4th, 5th, or 6th Amendment right being violated.
Now for those of you who don't know me very well, I am - by all accounts - a big square. Like any rational person, I don't like bad cops. But I also don't support films where bad cops are celebrated. The only cops and robbers movie that dares get close yet still earns my respect is L.A. Confidential. The film is an absolute classic in a way that American Gangster will never be, but in L.A. Confidential, the good guy Ed Exley, ends up shooting the bad guy in the back AFTER THE BAD GUY SURRENDERED!!! The only reason I can even remotely tolerate that is because the bad guy turned out to be L.A. Police Captain Dudley Smith, who was also secretly running the mob and indiscriminately killing civilians and police detectives over 25 pounds of heroin. Exley probably didn't need to shoot Smith in the back, but I can understand that letting Smith go would be a non-starter (Smith's cache with the Police Chief and District Attorney would almost certainly result in him getting his charges dismissed and leaving him free to exact revenge on Exley). Now to be fair, while I can justify killing Smith, I feel icky about the mental gymnastics required of me to make that moral choice... thank God it's only a movie!
So while American Gangster isn't a great film and sometimes feels like two halves of two different stories, I can get on board with it because it has cojones to be square, to not celebrate shooting the bad guy in the back, to celebrate good cop work, like another 2007 crime drama I wrote about a few months ago, David Fincher's Zodiac. The fact that Richie was able to take down all those bad cops by doing good cop work in real life is icing on the cake, and gives me hope for our men and women walking the thin blue line.