A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this based-on-a-true story drama about a brutal 1970s gangster isn't for kids. He commits extremely violent acts, which are depicted explicitly (often with guns) and accompanied by blood, wounds, and groaning. And since the plot focuses on heroin smuggling and dealing, there are many shots of junkies and drug use (including needles in arms, cocaine being snorted, and more). Sexual content includes scenes with prostitutes, kissing, bare breasts, and cleavage, and there's plenty of language, including almost 100 uses of "f--k."
What's the story?
Based on a true story and set in the mid-70s, AMERICAN GANGSTER centers on NYC heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an upright-to-a-fault detective intent on putting the ruthless gangster behind bars. Frank and Richie's relationship is complicated throughout the film; they're opposite but also linked. Both their self-images are grand: Frank rules NYC's drug underworld, and Richie turns in $1 million worth of drug money rather than keep it for himself. But while Frank surrounds himself with devoted family members, Richie is alone, rejected by his wife (Carla Gugino) and his fellow cops, who call him out as a "boy scout." Ambitious and politically astute, Frank sees his success as a representation of black progress. Richie's path is less sensational, more movie-style earnest. He and his hardworking undercover crew discover Frank's business precisely because Richie isn't as racist as his superiors, who don't believe that a black man could outscore the Italian mafia at their own game.
Is it any good?
The problem at the center of Ridley Scott's film is that as much as the movie loves Frank's intelligence and charisma, it must also condemn his brutality and criminality. The movie's solution is typical: It pits Frank against worse villains and puts him on a parallel track with a familiar hero.
Still, as the film scrambles to its end (the last half hour moves very quickly), the two develop a mutual respect. In part, this is a function of Richie's liberal bent. He'll not only arrest a black man, he'll also work with him ... to build cases against a lot of other bad guys. And so they share a sort of moral code after all, premised on their recognition of racial equality. As corny as this relationship may be, it returns again to the movie's central problem: It loves Frank and has to hate him.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether the movie glamorizes criminal behavior. How is Frank both villainous and attractive? How does the film compare and contrast him to Richie, who's upright on the job but not a good husband? Families can also discuss the fact that the movie is based on a true story. How accurate do you think it is? Why do filmmakers sometimes tweak the facts when they're making biopics or movies based on actual events?
- In theaters: November 1, 2007
- On DVD or streaming: February 19, 2008
- Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe
- Director: Ridley Scott
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 157 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: violence, pervasive drug conviolence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.
Our editors recommend
Top advice and articles
Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.