Released bang in the middle of Oscar season
with the lip-smacking prospect of two of Hollywood's finest actors going toe-to-toe in a gangster epic, Ridley Scott's latest picture promises much but struggles to delivery its weighty payload. American Gangster is a lengthy, character-based rise-and-fall story that pits Denzel Washington's crime lord against Russell Crowe's unbreakable cop, with unmistakable echoes of Scorsese and Coppola ringing throughout almost every scene. Big ambitions, then, but are they too
American Gangster chronicles the unbelievable true story of Manhattan hood Frank Lucas (Washington), a black gang member who came up with an ingenious scheme to flood the streets of New York with high quality heroin at half the price. Frank's 'Blue Magic' was a huge hit with NYC's junkies, and before he knew it, Lucas and his self-made crime empire had even the mafia marvelling at his business techniques. The man tasked with bringing him down was Richie Roberts (Crowe), a Jersey cop with the morals of a saint, as proved by his selfless act of handing in a haul of $1m in unmarked bills - almost unheard of in the corrupt NY Drug Enforcement Agency. So, it's the ruthless gangster versus the whiter-than-white cop... let battle commence!
Or not. The story dictates that 'hero' and 'villain' are kept apart for the majority of the running time, with Lucas and Roberts only clashing in a highly charged final scene reminiscent of Michael Mann's Heat. Both parties sit either side of a table, with nought but a cup of coffee between them: it's a remarkable scene that crackles with energy, and watching the games and one-upmanship between the two actors is the movie's definite high point. Sadly, it clocks in at well past two hours - it's actually around 90 minutes before one even knows the other exists.
Until then, you'll sit and watch Lucas build his business with remarkable ease and very little in the way of competition - one opponent is gunned down in plain sight, another (Cuba Gooding Jr's NY pimp Nicky Barnes) just plain drops off the radar. Lucas recruits family members only (a Mafia technique that ensures a minimum of 'ratting'), including spell-check nightmare Chiwetel Ejiofor as his brother Huey, yet conveniently, none of them seem to have a problem peddling crack for a living. The only exception is Mama Lucas, played by the excellent Ruby Dee, who is Frank's one weak spot: all good criminals love their mothers, after all. That aside, Scott seems to be saying that not only does crime pay, but it's a piece of piss to boot.
Meanwhile, Roberts is left chasing his tail for the majority of the running time, battling internal corruption in the form of Josh Brolin's slimy, one-dimensional cop and facing up to nagging ex-wife Carla Gugino. It's far from a redundant role, and Crowe does inject a degree of excitement into a potentially boring character (no one likes a goody goody), but the movie is called American Gangster, not American Cop: it's Frank Lucas' story, and you know no more about Roberts at the end than you do at the beginning. He's no Serpico, that's for sure.
Washington, on the other hand, has a ball with as meaty a role he's ever likely to receive. Granted free reign to flash that menacing smile, Washington absolutely commands the attention; his pressed suit gives him the appearance of a businessman but hides a bubbling undercurrent of explosive violence, which erupts sporadically yet spectacularly. Scott often uses a heavy hand to point out the gentle side of Frank's personality (He goes to church! He insists on coasters!) and the monstrous effects of Lucas' drug deals are all but glossed over, but these are faults of the director, not the actor: Washington is magnetic from start to finish.
American Gangster's main problem is its lack of spark: it lacks a truly iconic set-piece, a memorable exchange of dialogue, or one of those perfect matches between soundtrack and scene. Goodfellas had its tracking shot, The Godfather had its horse's head, Scarface had its final shoot-out. American Gangster simply has consistency: it never bottoms out, but it never hits the heights, either. You'd wouldn't call it bland, but you certainly wouldn't call it thrilling. It groans under the weight of its dual storylines until the relief of the last few scenes, where they finally become one.
American Gangster falls foul of its lofty ambitions - in positioning his movie up there with the all time gangster greats, Ridley Scott automatically invites unfavourable comparison with some true untouchables. For all its faults, it's still an engaging movie - Washington and Crowe give their all in a multi-layered story, and Scott's visual palette is still as rich as ever - but it suffers when measured up with the true classics of the genre. Though it's certainly admirable to aim high, it's like Frank Lucas himself says: "Either you're somebody, or you ain't nobody." Unfortunately for American Gangster, it ends up somewhere between the two.