American Gangster Has Star Power, But Not Much More
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Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Ortiz, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal
Director: Ridley Scott
Script: Steven Zaillian, Mark Jacobson
Rated: R, for violence, drugs, strong language, nudity and sexuality
Despite credible performances by leads Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and superb acting by a supporting cast led by veterans Ruby Dee and Armand Assante, American Gangster fails to deliver. At more than two-and-a-half hours, it will put off many exhibitors. Based on a magazine article by Mark Jacobson (“The Return of Superfly”), it suffers from the truth-being-stranger-than-fiction factor. And it takes cues from too many disparate film genres, including film noire, the detective story and the mafia saga.
Harry Savides' camera work is far from film noire. Principal players are backlit to the point that you can't tell who's doing what. And Steven Zaillian's script will disappoint fans of the police genre; it sacrifices many clues in favor of visual graphics.
Set mostly in Harlem from 1968 to 1976, the film is firmly rooted in its historical context. The time period marks a low point for the American military, demoralized and drug-addicted by a futile war in Indochina, and the height of the 20th century U.S. drug culture.
Washington plays dope pusher Frank Lucas. Like many heroes in mob sagas, he represents the American Dream turned on its head. A businessman as brilliant as he is ruthless, he quickly becomes America's drug kingpin, displacing the Italian mafia with a simple plan: Inspired by a TV news report of heroin-addicted American soldiers in southeast Asia, he figures out how to import pure heroin directly from the far east, bypassing the middleman and bribing members of the American military to transport his product. “Blue Magic,” which sells on the street for less than competitors' lower-quality dope, earns him a fortune. Lucas is a model of contained rage, bursting only at pivotal moments with calculated violence, like his killing of a rival drug dealer in plain sight on a Harlem street.
Crowe plays the honest cop Ritchie Roberts on Lucas' tail. He acts well, but his portrayal suffers from the occasional pop-up of his Aussie accent. Roberts, lead detective in the case against Lucas, goes on to be the drug dealer's prosecutor. Generally a lawyer can't be counsel in a case when he could be called as a witness. And if the story were fiction, Lucas would be dead in the final reel. Instead, he lives to get our of prison early, thanks to a deal with which he not only brings down three-quarters of New York City's drug enforcement agency, a ring of crooked cops led by Josh Brolin.
The film tries to make the audience sympathize with Lucas nonetheless – he's an understated family man –, but it's hard to feel sympathy for a guy who kills without any of the internal struggle of Al Pacino's Michael Corleone. The only character who wins empathy is Lucas' mother (played by Ruby Dee), a southern matriarch who willingly turns a blind eye to her son's business until the final reel.
Ridley Scott's direction suffers from the very same attributes that make Gladiator memorable. He's at his best in spectacle, which this isn't. Mark Streitenfeld's score fits the screenplay seamlessly, to the point that it's unnoticed.
Pietro Scalia's editing shines both in compressing vast amounts of exposition into a few short sequences and in the climactic shootout, part of a denouement that owes much to Michael Corleone's score-settling murders at the end of The Godfather.
With its R rating and age restrictions in most major markets, American Gangster will depend on the star power of Crowe and Washington to make back its estimated $100 million cost.