From its deliberately iconic title (notwithstanding the fact that it shares the moniker with a BET series) to its epic running time (157 minutes) and its face-off between two of today’s most imposing leading men, “American Gangster” obviously aims to be something more than a run-of-the-mill crime melodrama; Ridley Scott is obviously straining for “Godfather” territory here. Unfortunately, though the result is watchable, it’s more like “The Untouchables”—and then an episode of the old Robert Stack television series rather than Brian De Palma’s exciting, visually flamboyant 1987 big-screen revival of it. It’s not a bad movie, just not the classic one it’s obviously striving to be.
Based on a true story—how faithfully one can only guess—the film centers on Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), whom we meet as an aide to larger-than-life Harlem hoodlum Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). It’s 1968, and when the colorful Bumpy dies, Frank takes the unlikely leap to leader of the pack by flying to war-torn Southeast Asia, making his way deep into the jungle and using his entire savings to buy a load of pure heroin from a local warlord, which he then smuggles into the U.S. aboard U.S. military planes with the connivance of a soldier friend and sells in high grade at cut-rate prices on the street, effectively “branding” his merchandise for quality and racking up sales. As he continues his unusual import scheme, he’s able to bring his southern family up north, where he buys an estate for his gray-haired mother (Ruby Dee) and takes his brothers (including Huey, played by Cwitetel Ejiofor) into the business; works out a distribution deal with his Harlem rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and Italian mafioso Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante); and weds a beauty contest winner (Lymari Nadal). Frank’s on top of the world, underplaying the flashy gangland stereotype but ruling his empire when necessary with an iron—and violent—hand.
Of course, there’s the law to deal with, on the one hand the corrupt New York City crew led by chief narcotics detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), who menacingly demands his usual cut of the profits. But he actually proves far less threatening to Frank’s business than Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), this story’s version of Eliot Ness—a thoroughly incorruptible New Jersey cop who’s drafted from the mean streets to lead a federal anti-drug taskforce. Steve Zaillian’s script basically alternates between episodes focusing on Lucas’ operation and others dealing with Roberts’ struggles, first with a troubled partner and an unraveling marriage (Carla Gugino plays his wife), as well as his own law-school studies, and then with the difficulty of working through the layers of the NYC drug underground to identify the source of the heroin flooding the streets while combating both the police corruption represented by Trupo and the prejudice among federal bigwigs that a black man couldn’t possibly be the genius behind the business.
Eventually, of course, Richie fastens on Lucas and breaks up his brazen, all-or-nothing attempt to ship in one huge last load of heroin as the American effort in Vietnam is collapsing. Before long the two men are facing one another in jail, with Frank negotiating turn state’s evidence in return for special treatment, and Richie getting his opportunity to show off his legal chops in court.
Zaillian and Scott tell this story with clarity if not always economy (the footage devoted to both men’s domestic affairs is prolonged beyond necessity), and the picture’s tone, perched between cautionary tale and exaltation of criminality, is an intriguing one, not entirely avoiding the present-day tendency to pander to inner-city audiences but not turning into an exploitative glorification of the gangsta life, either. (Dee’s big monologue toward the close makes the latter abundantly clear). And from the technical point of view, it’s certainly well made. Though Harris Savides’ cinematography, with its washed-out color palette, can be visually fatiguing, it does boast a certain glassy elegance, and a solid period feel is delivered by Arthur Max’s production design, Nicholas Lundy’s art direction, the set decoration by Beth A. Rubino and Leslie Rollins and Janty Yates’s costumes.
And it boasts a formidable cast. Washington and Crowe are superstars of the game, of course, and both do yeoman work. But though both are strong, neither is extraordinary here. Washington certainly has presence, but falls back too often on his familiar quiet sense of authority, while Crowe, perhaps realizing that Richie isn’t a perfect fit, tries to compensate by ramping up the energy level, with the result that there’s an excess of nervous tension in much of what he does. Their last-act face-off, though, is a high point, recalling the all-too-brief scene shared by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in “Heat.” The large supporting cast features especially colorful turns by Brolin, Assante, Williams and Dee, with juicy cameos from Ric Young as a Thai warlord and Jon Polito as an old-school drug distributor. But virtually everyone contributes positively to the mix, although it must be said that Ejiofor is unusually anonymous.
So while it’s a pity that this large-scale attempt at a cops-and-criminals epic doesn’t manage to fulfill its ambitions, it should prove solid entertainment if you don’t go expecting too much of it. After all, reruns of “The Untouchables” can be fun.