Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe deliver inspired performances as rivals from opposite sides of the law in director Ridley Scott’s restrained true-crime epic about ’70s era Harlem drug king Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the honest cop (Russell Crowe) who pursued him. Before smuggling 100 kilos of heroin from Southeast Asia with help from the U.S. military during the Viet Nam war, Lucas usurps his respected crime boss mentor Bumpy Johnson when he drops dead from a heart attack.
Upstanding Harlem community figure Lucas then undercuts his competition’s drug prices and builds a cartel that enables him to marry Miss Puerto Rico and move his North Carolina family to New York. Although entertaining American Gangster fails to rise to the level of movies like Scarface or The Godfather due, in part, to a lack of vision by cinematographer Harris Savides and Marc Streitenfeld’s underachieving musical score.
There’s never any question that Scott’s movie will pay out in deep character dividends from Washington and Crowe. They’re brilliant actors working at the height of their powers. But this movie, gritty though it may be, never sizzles.
Crowe’s detective Richie Roberts is the Serpico of his day. He wears an indelible reputation of honesty from turning a huge amount of drug money in to the police department after finding it in a car trunk. He’s also a womanizer willing to confront his own inability to function as a partial parent to his son.
But Richie’s ardor lays in breaking up the drug cartel that’s eating Harlem like cockroaches on steroids. Crowe’s decision to overplay Richie’s humility in this instance carries a snake-in-the-grass affectation that further splits the film’s arc.
A movie called American Gangster should be about one man. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian doesn’t heed the distinction, as evidenced in his misguided attempt to give equal time to Lucas and Richie.
In fact, Frank Lucas is the underdog protagonist hero that the audience wants to see win. Washington plays the character as cunning, fair and generous. But it’s here that the screenwriter and director conspire to some narrative sleight of hand by substituting Washington’s spotless leading character for Richie’s ethically-willed cop. In so doing, the true-crime-epic gets relegated to a standard issue police procedural, rather than the soaring tale it hints at but never achieves.
Supporting performances from Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Armand Assante add a wealth of character texture and emotional color to a movie that should be better than it is. American Gangster is a great movie, but it should have ranked among the best gangster pictures. MTW