Everything about American Gangster screams "epic." A swaggering, burly, overstuffed entertainment with aspirations of greatness, American Gangster wants desperately to be a new Godfather, but feels more like a pulpy mash-up of Serpico and Black Caesar — and there ain't nothing wrong with that. The film is a gritty throwback to the bad old days when urban decay was turning the Big Apple into "an open sewer," — and a flashback to the good old days of '70s filmmaking, when nuance, texture and substance weren't dirty words in Hollywood. Dueling story arcs follow the slowly converging career paths of New York kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and downtrodden but upwardly mobile New Jersey narc, Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe). (Roberts studies for the bar when not busting perps.)
Director Ridley Scott invokes the era by casting Mod Squad icon Clarence Williams III as Frank's boss Bumpy Johnson, who gives a stirring lecture about the value of wholesaling, and meeting the needs of the customer and the neighborhood. Johnson then promptly keels over and leaves Frank the keys to the kingdom. He applies his mentor's methods and ethics along with his own brutal business savvy and calculating persona, becoming the largest heroin dealer on the East Coast. His innovation is buying the product directly from Vietnam in a scheme so fiendishly clever that it would be unbelievable if it weren't true. And while the junk is ruining lives and tearing up the community, Frank sleeps easy because he loves his momma, goes to church on Sundays and passes out turkeys on Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile Ritchie's marriage is crumbling because he chases anything in a skirt, though on the job he's so pure he actually turns in an untraceable million-dollar haul found in a bad guy's trunk. This shocking honesty makes him a target of crooked cops all over town, particularly Josh Brolin's malevolent Detective Trupo, who lives the high life by shaking down crooks. The corruption runs so deep and Frank's outfit is so efficient that he isn't even on Ritchie's radar, until he turns up in a chinchilla fur coat at the first Ali/Frazier fight, where celebrities and boxers alike stop to kiss his ring like a visiting dignitary. From there, Roberts and his hand-picked federal task force start putting puzzle pieces together, making every scrap of info seem like a holy relic.
At two and a half hours, Gangster is swollen, as if layering details will add gravitas. Scott re-creates the dirty NYC streets with the same meticulous attention to detail that made the L.A. futurescape of Blade Runner dazzle. Every flared collar and platform heel is given tender loving care, while important character traits are left unexplored. We never really get a sense of what's driving Frank, the rationale behind his hard-ass killer stare, aside from the lies he tells about himself. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian's sympathies obviously lie with Ritchie, who is easy to root for and whose complexities are easier to understand, even if Frank is more fun to watch. The "gentleman gangster" is one of America's favorite myths, and Washington makes one hell of a seductive devil, giving soul to a guy who probably didn't have much of one to begin with.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].