“American Gangster” wants to be a great epic crime saga so badly you can feel it. The true story at its core — of the rise, fall and redemption of a ’70s-era Harlem drug lord — is so terrific, it’s amazing it wasn’t put onscreen long ago, and it would be difficult today to find two better actors to pit against one another, as hoodlum and cop, respectively, than Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. With so many elements going for it, this big, fat Universal release is absorbing, exciting at times and undeniably entertaining, and is poised to be a major commercial hit. But great it’s not.
Memories of numerous classics hang over this film like banners commemorating past championship teams — “The Godfather,” “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” “Scarface” and “Goodfellas,” among other modern-era crime-pic landmarks. Like most of those, this is a quintessential New York story, one you feel could have been the basis for a Sidney Lumet masterpiece. But while “American Gangster” is made with consummate professionalism on every level, it just doesn’t quite feel like the real deal; it delivers, but doesn’t soar.
Based on a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson, the story arc is so sensational it warrants outsized treatment. Frank Lucas rose from Harlem crime-world minion to drug kingpin by bringing in uncut heroin straight from Southeast Asia during the height of the Vietnam War. At least the way the script tells it, his steps were dogged by notably incorruptible working-class federal investigator Richie Roberts (a man not once mentioned in Jacobson’s piece), and the upshot was the hammer coming down on the NYPD’s drug enforcement cops, three-fourths of whom were on the take.
Steven Zaillian’s script plausibly lays the story out on parallel tracks, following the two men until they finally meet very late in the game. It’s an intelligent, craftsmanlike job that coherently lays out a complicated, multifaceted tale, but also one that serves up genuine intensity and overblown aspects in virtually equal measure, with director Ridley Scott following suit.
Contrast between the two protags is neatly set up. Frank (Denzel Washington), driver and collector for legendary Harlem hood Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III, classy), steps into the void left by his mentor’s death in 1968 by traveling to the jungles of Thailand and, with crucial help from an Army relative, transporting 100 kilos of pure heroin back to the U.S. via military planes. Eliminating any middleman, Frank floods the streets with top-quality stuff, undercuts the competition’s prices and reaps huge profits.
In an era of pimp-style flash and braggadacio, Frank cuts an intriguingly low-key profile; he dresses conservatively, eats breakfast alone early every morning in a local diner and seems not to indulge in his own merchandise. But when crossed, he doesn’t hesitate to administer punishment personally by shooting the transgressor himself in broad daylight.
On the other hand, Richie (Russell Crowe) is a sweaty, scraping-it-together Joisy kid going through an unpleasant divorce and studying for a law degree when he’s not chasing down drug dealers. He becomes the notorious exception to the rule in his profession when he busts a couple guys with a million bucks in the trunk and insists on turning it in.
With little visible opposition, Frank does more than his share to spread drugs and crime throughout New York. Pic barrels like an uptown express through this moral issue, neither condemning the self-made entrepreneur nor excessively glamorizing him, blaxploitation-style (the real Frank Lucas was, by all accounts, considerably flashier than Washington’s version allows).
As Frank expands his empire, he brings his five younger brothers up from North Carolina and proudly installs his dirt-poor mother (Ruby Dee) in a white mansion on a hill. Frank meets and marries Miss Puerto Rico 1970 (Lymari Nadal); puts would-be rivals at a polite distance (Armand Assante’s Italian mobster, who wants part of Frank’s action) or in their place (Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Nicky Barnes, Frank’s real-life Harlem competitor); and makes a return trip to Thailand to engineer the most ambitious import scheme of his career (although not nearly as breathtaking as the real man’s alleged career-capper).
To make an end run around the NYPD, the feds recruit Richie to lead their own drug probe, a move that bumps Mr. Clean up against top cop Det. Trupo (Josh Brolin) in some of the film’s most jolting interludes. Trupo’s brazen sense of entitlement to a cut of everyone’s drug profits is jaw-droppingly audacious, and it’s played to the hilt of threatening menace by Brolin, who steals scenes from even Washington and Crowe. With this and his splendid turn in “No Country for Old Men,” Brolin has graduated to the bigs this year.
But it’s when Richie, in a spectacular raid on Frank’s factory, nails his prey, and Washington and Crowe finally end up across a desk from one another in a small room, that “American Gangster” achieves maximum voltage. What goes down during their exchanges proves all the more engrossing thanks to the shrewd underplaying of these two terrific actors, both of whom rise to the occasion when pitted opposite the best.
Still, there’s an irony in that, good as he is, Crowe is essentially miscast as the tenacious working-class Jewish kid who brings Frank down. Having an actor of Crowe’s stature play Frank’s adversary helps balance the film, but this is one of the few roles he’s played for which he brings nothing special to the table, and which does not allow his considerable charisma to flourish.
Similarly miscast is director Scott, whose greatest strengths lie in bringing to life grandly conceived portraits of distant worlds past and future, rather than in contemporary realism. Maximizing a gritty big-city story requires a credibility composed of thousands of small details, and this is one area where a citizen-of-the-world director like Scott can’t excel. It’s akin to asking Lumet or Scorsese to make a definitive film about crime in ’70s Newcastle — they could do a respectable, even exciting job of it, but it probably wouldn’t ring deeply true.
Still, Washington’s steely grip on his impersonation of Frank Lucas holds the film together. Even if he doesn’t entirely give the impression of a street hustler who never attended school in his life, Washington presents a man of striking, thoroughly credible contradictions: cool businessman/explosive killer, loner/family man, engaging guy/scourge of society.
Awash in blues, functional lensing is something of a disappointment coming from the usually distinctive Harris Savides. Though it achieves a decent momentum, pic feels its length.