It isn’t that American Gangster is an empirically bad film or is even unenjoyable. While the lights are down and the screen is aglow, you’re sure to be perfectly entertained. But don’t be surprised if, when you walk out of the theater, you forget the film ever existed.
American Gangster is based on a true story, and is set is the closing years of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, a time of tremendous turbulence in America. Police and judicial corruption is rampant. Race riots are routine. The Vietnam War is taking a devastating toll overseas and at home. And a new opiate, heroine, is blighting America’s urban spaces.
Nobody noticed Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) when he was the quiet apprentice to Bumpy Johnson, one of Harlem’s most powerful black crime bosses. But when Bumpy died, Lucas saw his chance to build his own empire and create his own unique version of the American Dream. Emboldened with a keen business sense and years of street knowledge, Lucas comes to rule the inner-city drug trade by flooding the streets with a purer, cheaper product than has ever been seen. His secret? He smuggles heroine into the United States from the fields of Vietnam in the coffins of fallen soldiers. It isn’t long before Lucas outplays all of the leading crime syndicates, amasses a fortune, becomes a cult superstar and positions himself as one of New York City’s most influential criminal titans.
Hard-nosed cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a pariah among his fellow officers. Ironically enough, he can’t be trusted by the largely corrupt police force because of his reputation of sterling integrity and abhorrence for being on the take. He is Pacino’s Serpico without the unruly beard. During the day he hunts down criminals and at night studies for the bar exam. Roberts is a natural investigator and he’s spent enough time on the streets to know a power shift when he feels one. Someone new is in control of the drug underworld, and after a while Roberts is convinced that a black power player has come to dominate the scene. Tasked to run the first ever anti-narcotics division in the country, Roberts hand picks an elite team of street savvy undercover detectives to get to the bottom of the mystery.
American Gangster stars two of the most respected actors working today. Washington, the consummate professional, brings his usual immaculate class and bearing. And Crowe, a bit thick around the middle for this role, plays the scrappy, resolute bulldog for which he is known. But they are also surrounded by a terrific supporting cast including Ruby Dee as the Lucas matriarch, Chiwetel Ejiofor (who starred opposite Washington in The Inside Man) as Lucas’ younger brother and right-hand man, Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. — in a good film for a change — as Lucas’ major rival in the heroin trade, Nicky “Mr. Untotchable” Barnes (and the subject of an upcoming documentary of the same name), Armand Assante as mafioso Dominic Cattano, and Josh Brolin — who is everywhere this year — as on-the-take NYPD detective Trupo.
American Gangster goes to great pains to recreate the dilapidated state of mid-1970s New York City, though cinematographer Harris Savides lenses it in such oppressive darkness that you cannot readily appreciate it, much less tell who or what you’re looking at half the time. It isn’t simply another example of director Ridley Scott’s career-long penchant for shooting in shadows, but an aesthetic choice that at times actually works against our ability to comprehend the action.
American Gangster is a film of character paradoxes. While Lucas poisons the population of New York, he is, at the same time, a sterling husband and family man. Conversely, Roberts has prioritized a life of fighting crime at the expense of his wife and child, who are in the process of leaving him. They are two very similar men on different sides of the law. Both are dedicated and tenacious, even ruthless in the pursuit of their individual aims. Both men hold themselves to a rigid ethical code that ostracizes them from their colleagues. It is these very attributes that set them on a collision course with one another, and will lead to the most improbable of relationships.
Lucas’ undoing is but the penultimate climax of the film, leading the way for a final chapter that, while keeping to the reality of the true events, is not given enough time to breath and hence feels tacked on. Like the flawless Heat, what keeps the Lucas/Roberts dynamic interesting is that they never meet. Until the last, and easily weakest, act, that is, when a situation too implausible to believe if it weren’t true is given the short narrative shrift, just when we need a deeper examination the most. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that the film was already running too long. Clocking in at nearly three hours, they may have been right. And yet the end of American Gangster, which should have felt like a gratifying validation, instead feels like haphazard addition.
American Gangster has the pedigree to be a worthwhile contribution to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, it isn’t original enough to warrant such acclaim. The story of a black man’s rocketing rise to absolute power, something never before seen in the criminal underworld, should have made for an indispensable addition to the pantheon. Sadly, the film borrows everything from the epic crime genre but contributes next to nothing.