November 02, 2007

American Gangster

Here's the deal - I tell you what I know, and
you and Ridley let me be in "Gladiator 2"

Grade: B -
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, and Lymari Nadal

Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hours, 37 minutes

Although officially helmed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster plays like the Antoine Fuqua-directed version that never got past pre-production: solid but stolid, honest but derivative, and involving yet indolent. In essence, it is a portrait of contrasts, not merely between its two protagonists but the two halves matted together to create a watchable but unoriginal whole.

It is not just that Denzel Washington channels his ablest incarnation yet of the Training Day/Malcolm X amalgam he regularly regurgitates nowadays, or that Russell Crowe’s Serpico-redux turns in $1 million in found drug money rather than share it with cops-on-the-take who consequently turn against him. The real plagiarism is a story arc that mimics everything from Scarface to Superfly to The Godfather without injecting any artistry or dramatic tension.

Washington plays Frank Lucas, a North Carolina native who in the 1960s moved to New York City where he studied at the feet of infamous Harlem crime boss “Bumpy” Johnson. After Bumpy’s death, Lucas assumes his mentor’s mantle by mounting a drug empire around smuggling pure heroin from Southeast Asia into the U.S. in the coffins of dead American servicemen killed in the Vietnam War. Along the way, Lucas rules his kingdom with an iron hand and cocked gun, warding off threats from rival mob bosses, crooked cops, and ultimately police detective Richie Roberts (Crowe) and his handpicked anti-narcotics squad.

The by-the-numbers script from writer Steven Zaillian vacillates between Lucas and Roberts using parallel storylines. The ironic plot hook, we quickly learn, is that Lucas is a ruthless criminal who loves and cares for his family – most of whom he moves from North Carolina to join his nefarious enterprise – while Roberts is a straight-shooting cop whose personal life comprises a broken marriage, deficient fatherhood, and wandering eye.

The basic problems are two-fold. First, this is fundamentally Frank Lucas’ story, and every minute spent focused on Roberts’ backstory feels like filler, however compelling it might be unto itself. Second is the derivative quality of the Lucas treatment: so little time is devoted or usefully spent on Lucas that we are only left with the bare prerequisites of a docudrama about a Harlem Scarface or Godfather – a violent outburst here, an attempt on his life there, etc. Nary an eyebrow is raised inside or out of Lucas’ inner-circle when he beds and weds a Puerto Rican Beauty Queen during the early 1970s, while the talent of Chewitel Ejiofor is squandered in an underdeveloped role as one of Frank’s younger brothers.

When the narrative orbits of Lucas and Roberts finally intersect, the result is a glossy, almost giddy final act that is tonally out of sync with the rest of the film. In a moment that should wallow in Lucas’ comeuppance, Scott attempts to elevate him to the status of folk hero.

Although generally entertaining, there is a perfunctory, workmanlike air hovering around American Gangster that keeps it from attaining the lofty designs it clearly desires. Then again, the last movie costarring both Denzel and Crowe was Virtuosity, so at least this is an improvement.

Neil Morris

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