Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Black Hawk Down), Denzel Washington (Déjà vu), and Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man) set the bar astronomically high in this film about the rise and ultimate demise of NY drug lord Frank Lucas. Fun fact: Washington and Crowe previously teamed up in 1995’s Virtuosity, back when Crowe’s career was in its infancy, at least in the States. It goes without saying that both actors’ performances easily surpassed their previous joint effort.
American Gangster starts with a jolt, the brutal image of Frank Lucas executing some poor soul for an unknown offense. He sets the man ablaze and then finishes off the job with a series of quick gunshots. And so it begins, a tale that is at varying times touching, tense, awkward, and violent. The opening scene prepares us for the notion that you never know what Lucas is capable of, and that with Frank Lucas, like most gangsters, a violent undercurrent steadily bubbles under a seemingly cool exterior. Yet Lucas is never unjustifiably short-tempered, he is never a loose cannon. When he “snaps,” the recipient of his rage is always well-deserving, and so Lucas is not fearsome or ruthless in his violence, but rather measured and calculated. He is a man who can blow someone’s brains out in broad daylight on a crowded street, then re-enter his favorite diner and resume his meal as if he merely stepped out to feed a parking meter. Some actors are can’t miss, and Denzel Washington is as close to a sure thing as you can get. He brings his standard charm and cocky swagger to the role, conveying Lucas’ duality with relish and authenticity. Frank Lucas is a man that can set another human being on fire, but is almost child-like in his adoration of his mother. His anger is equally matched by the love and affection he has for his family, and the tenderness he shows with his wife-a demure young beauty queen who melts under Lucas’ warm and steady gaze when they first meet. This is a performance that Washington seemed to enjoy delivering, a brief return to the villainous capability he displayed in Training Day, but to compare the two roles would be a disservice to Washington as an actor.
I would be remiss if I don’t leave the impression that American Gangster is as much about Frank Lucas as it is about the lawman who hunts him: Officer Richie Roberts, a professionally scrupulous but personally questionable man who initially underestimates Lucas’ power and influence. I’m not a huge Russell Crowe fan, but the man is an outstanding actor and turns in a compelling performance. You’re forced to be a part of his experience, because the movie constantly shifts between Roberts and Lucas, which brings me to one of the things that bothered me about the film. The frequent scene changes and introduction of subplots and side stories were a mild distraction and made the movie feel as if it was moving in a thousand directions. As a viewer, I was bombarded with images and characters that served as brief breaks from what I felt was the principal story: Frank Lucas and the cop who pursues him. Perhaps the writers wanted to flesh out back stories so that the viewer had a complete perception of the character. For example, there is a great deal of time spent showing the interaction between Roberts and his partner, and Roberts and his estranged wife. In some respects the movie seemed like a collection of scenes rather than a cohesive film.
Director Ridley Scott effectively captured the hopelessness of the heroin epidemic of the 1970s, although some of his scenes of junkies shooting up wore thin and became disgustingly gratuitous after a while. Another observation is that other characters were relegated to the periphery, whether they were members of Lucas’ family (roles played by Common and TI) or other tangential characters whose purpose and function remained vague and ambiguous. I’ll leave you with this parting thought. American Gangster is not the instant classic you think it is. It’s not the best drug movie, it’s not the best cop vs. kingpin movie, it’s not a movie I will see twice in theaters (surprising for me), nor is it the best Denzel Washington movie. It is a slightly underdeveloped, highly ambitious, gritty spectacle, which is saved by Washington’s larger-than-life performance. Oh yeah, Ridley Scott is no Martin Scorcese. Scorcese is still the master of the gangster epic, and I found myself wondering how much better the movie would’ve been in his hands. I do give Scott credit for capturing the atmosphere and time period. There’s an amusing scene where Officer Roberts sees a microwave for the first time, and little details like that give the movie a subtle boost. Anyway, enough rambling. American Gangster is one of those movies you need to see for yourself. It was noticealby imperfect, but I enjoyed it. You be the judge.