The white hat/black hat gangster movie has a long history, all the way from O’Brien and Cagney in “Angels With Dirty Faces” to DiCaprio and Damon in “The Departed.” Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington continue that tradition this year in “American Gangster,” and yet it’s safe to say that few of those films had a white hat quite as rumpled as Crowe’s.
For his portrayal of Richie Roberts, the New Jersey detective who nailed Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, Crowe set his considerable charisma to neutral, playing a workaholic who allows his personal life to atrophy in pursuit of a case. Spending most of the film slumped over legal files, fighting a losing custody battle and fashioning a potato chip sandwich for Thanksgiving dinner, Crowe’s role hardly seems one befitting a marquee movie star.
Yet according to James Mangold, who directed Crowe in “3:10 to Yuma,” that’s par for course.
“Most actors you meet are very concerned with their likability,” Mangold says. “What’s so brilliant about Russell is that the undeniable charisma he shows in his films is also married to a fearlessness as a performer to do whatever is asked of him, and to take the audience to a darker, more interesting place than another actor might go.”
Likewise, Crowe’s performance in “Gangster” doesn’t pull any punches. Even when Roberts shows his moral turpitude, such as the early scene when he defies an unspoken police code by not taking his cut in a drug money bust, Crowe doesn’t play the nobility card. Indeed, he almost seems to regret taking the high road so consistently.
This refusal to pander to audience sympathies has been a constant in Crowe’s career, whether he’s playing a skinhead in “Romper Stomper” or a bruiser of a cop in “L.A. Confidential.” According to “Gangster” producer Brian Grazer, who also oversaw Crowe’s Oscar-nominated turn in “A Beautiful Mind,” verisimilitude is everything for the actor.
“Russell does tremendous research on every role,” Grazer says, “and he ends up knowing every detail you could possibly know about the subject of the movie. And he knows how to communicate that visually. He understands how to create an impact onscreen as well as any living actor.”
Next: Russell Crowe is reteaming with director Ridley Scott for a fourth and fifth time, respectively, in the William Monahan-scripted “Body of Lies,” currently filming, and”Nottingham,” in pre-production.