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“American Gangster”

“American Gangster” (photo)

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In his heyday, Frank Lucas was making a million dollars a day, selling unusually pure heroin he got factory-direct, as it were, smuggled from Asian opium fields inside the coffins of Vietnam War casualties. That true story, the one that serves as the basis for Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” is amazing. But Scott’s film is not.

Mark Jacobson’s article about Lucas, “The Return of Superfly,” is still available for free online here, and is worth a read if you’re interested in the story and the film. In Jacobson’s piece, Lucas narrates his own life, with all the flair (and, no doubt, exaggeration of facts) you’d expect from an unrepentant hustler. The movie is faithful to the broad strokes of Lucas’ life, but not necessarily to the specifics of his or Jacobson’s story. It leaves out some of the most outlandish (and seemingly most cinematic) details — like an incredible story that implicates Henry Kissinger in Lucas’ drug ring, and another that places the site of one of the most important meetings in Harlem drug history in the lingerie department of Henri Bendel’s on 57th Street. It also adds the story of Richie Roberts, the man who eventually prosecuted Lucas for his crimes but who doesn’t warrant a single mention in Jacobson’s piece.

That’s fine in theory. And it certainly allows “American Gangster” to explore the “cop/criminal” dynamic that has fueled so many good recent cop movies, from Michael Mann’s “Heat” to John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” as well as David Simon’s television masterpiece, “The Wire.” Lucas and Roberts — who never meet until the end of the film — live on opposite sides of the law with similar sets of problems: both are outcasts, both are loyal to their family and friends above almost everything else, both are underestimated by their superiors, both are discriminated against (Lucas for his skin color, Roberts for his Judaism). To blurry the boundaries between good and bad further, a great deal of time is spent on the men and their respective home lives, and see how a bad person could be a good husband and vice versa.

The problem in execution is that “American Gangster” doesn’t add anything new to the dialogue between the cop and criminal archetypes. It’s not as pensive as “Heat,” not as dynamic as “Hard Boiled,” not as sardonic as “The Departed.” And at almost three hours in length it’s too long and sluggishly paced to work as a thriller, and too short to attain the complexity of a work like “The Wire.” (If you’re going to spend three hours on this movie, you may as well just spend nine more and watch any season of “The Wire” instead). It doesn’t help that this movie was essentially made once before, in period, with a good deal more verve and grit as 1972’s “Across 110th Street.” This underappreciated blaxploitation-era gem shares plenty with “American Gangster” — including its title song — and surpasses it, in the intricacy of the dynamic between the police and the crooks, in the quality and quantity of blistering action sequences, and in the sweaty desperation of the characters. Plus it never tries to pass off the Williamsburg Bridge as somewhere in New Jersey.

All this comparison is a long-winded way of suggesting that there isn’t much else to do while watching “American Gangster” than compare it to other films in its genre. Certainly the acting is good — with Washington and Crowe, even when all else fails you can at least count on that (see “Virtuosity”). But despite having that vivid Jacobson article as a source, Steven Zaillian’s script does little more with the Lucas character than turn him into a Harlem Tony Soprano. Roberts, with his rigid moral code in the workplace and disastrous home life, looks an awful lot like Crowe’s Officer White from “L.A. Confidential.”

Director Ridley Scott always gets a good handle on the style of whatever period he’s recreating in his films, and “American Gangster” is no exception; supporting actor John Hawkes in particular looks like he just stepped out of a time machine from the set of a John Holmes films. But his grasp on the fundamentals of storytelling are a little shakier. Slow and repetitive, “American Gangster” doesn’t provide half the entertainment value of Jacobson’s lengthy article. And it’s a lot cheaper and quicker to just read the article.

“American Gangster” opens November 2nd.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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