American Gangster (2007)

Rated: R
Grade: AFAA=A
Budget: $100 million
Box Office: $130 million US, $131 million Int’l, DVD N/A

Directed by: Ridley Scott, who’s made…seriously? Well, just in case and in deference, Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Blackhawk Down, GI Jane, Black Rain, Legend, Blade Runner, and Alien.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Cuba Gooding Jr., Armand Assante, John Ortiz, and Ted Levine.

This is the true story of the early beginnings of the DEA with one honest cop in New York who sets about fighting corruption within the police force and taking down the heroin kingpin, Harlem mob lord Frank Lucas.

Entertainment Value: A
The characters are fascinating, the acting, of course, is excellent. Surely everyone expects that Ridley Scott knows how to make a great movie. Even though you can probably guess what is going to happen in the end, you don’t really know, and you surely wonder how we’ll get from here to there.

Superficial Content: F
Drugs/Alcohol F, Sexuality F, Violence F, Language F, Illegality F
Yep, this is R rated, and properly so. What can I tell you? Nudity, killing, swearing, people using heroin, and the movie centers on corrupt cops and drug dealing. If superficial content is your concern, this is not your movie.

Significant Content: A
One man with passionate dedication and unimpeachable honor can really make a difference in the world. Many cops are dirty, but many are also decent. The most dangerous criminals are not the flashy ones that grab the headlines, but the ones you never hear about because they keep a low profile, even towards the cops. Drugs are evil.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Again, Ridley Scott is a genius of a filmmaker, one of my favorites, going all the way back to Blade Runner and Alien. Like any good movie, this provokes not only your emotional reactions, but also it makes you want to ask questions. Unfortunately, in this case, the historical inaccuracies of the film undermine some of the artistic punch. Nonetheless, as a work of art, this is top notch. And given all the bad films about gangs and drugs, seeing one where right wins in the end is very satisfying.

Discussion Questions:
~Why are corrupt police so much more offensive to our sensibilities than even the criminals they are charged with stopping? Do you think that we pay police enough to reasonably expect to keep them honest?
~Why does the movie so repeatedly emphasize the return of the million dollars by Ritchie?
~Does the good you do in one area make up for the bad you do in other areas?
~Is Ritchie a good man? Which requires more courage: to turn in the money or to be a good husband and father?
~Why does this movie have so much of the Vietnam War in the plot? Is it just for setting the stage or is there some sort of commentary being made comparing Nixon with someone in this movie?
~What’s the danger in having a job that depends on illicit behavior, even if it is intended to combat that behavior? How can we make sure that it’s worthwhile to people to end the behavior that supports their jobs?
~Does Frank really believe that he is amorally running a business? Capone?
~What does the fur coat symbolize? Why does he choose to wear it? Why does Frank do what he does with it? Is real power quiet? How might this apply to international relations?
~It’s been said that the most wicked people are often absurdly zealous about one or a few points of principle that they think makes up for whatever else they do. Is this true of rank? Is this true of Ritchie? Is it true generally? How might we say that pride is still the issue in both the virtue and the vice of such people?
~“Quitting while you’re ahead is not the same as quitting.” What do you think?
~Have you ever been proud of a solid decision you made but still wondered whether you’d have the fortitude to make the same choice again?
~Is interdiction and prosecution a useful strategy for fighting drugs? What does this movie teach?
~Why do you think Frank’s wife decided to marry him? Was she deceived? What about his family?
~How did Frank, and Bumpy before him, make people in Harlem love them? Was this a rational response to those who dealt the drugs that also killed locals and spurred crime? How might their PR tactics be compared to an organization like, say Hezbollah? Do you see any of these same tactics being used in American politics?
~Frank Lucas is successful because he applies basic business principles to crime. What other areas of knowledge can you think of where the principles discovered can be used regardless of the morality of the purpose for which they are used? Do you think there is any accountability for those who teach such principles that they be sure those they are teaching will use them beneficially? Is it reckless to simply publish information for anyone to read that gives them power through success?
~The judge who presided over this case says that the movie is 99% fictional and that the real Frank Lucas was an illiterate and vicious thug, everything Denzel Washington was not. Why do you think the makers of the film chose to recast Lucas this way? Would Denzel have played this part if they hadn’t?
~Why do movies based on real events feel the need to twist and exaggerate the facts for dramatic effect? Several former DEA agents have filed suit against Universal for defamation of character because of this film. What does that tell you about its authenticity?

Overall Grade: A
It reminded me a lot of The Untouchables in parts, and surely liking one would entail liking the other.

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