MOVIE REVIEW ★★ 1/2 Sorry to Disappoint

‘American Gangster’ Does Not Live Up to Potential

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Gangster Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington) names names to outcast cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) in the true juggernaut success story of a cult hero from the streets of 1970s Harlem in “American Gangster.”
Courtesy of Universal Studios

American Gangster

Directed by Ridley Scott

Written by Steven Zaillian, based on an article by Mark Jacobson

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ruby Dee

Rated R

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Underwhelming. Despite its star-studded cast, “American Gangster” fails to deliver. Its story — based on a feature in New York Magazine ­­— chronicles the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington), a shrewd and intelligent 1970s Harlem heroin operation mastermind. Lucas climbs his way to the top when he imports heroin directly from Southeast Asia, rather than working through the usual channels, offering a better product at cheaper prices. Inspired by the Mafia’s model, he brings his family up from North Carolina to run the operation, and he is extremely successful. That is, until Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), seemingly the only honest cop in all of New York and New Jersey, is assigned to investigate the case.

Clocking in at a rather long 157 minutes, it’s clear that “Gangster” needed a bit more time in the editing room. The plight of the detective, Roberts, lacks the oomph of Lucas’s storyline. Roberts gains infamy among his fellow police officers when he and his partner discover a bag with $1 million in unmarked bills in the trunk of a drug dealer’s car. Instead of pocketing the cash, as any of the others would have done, Roberts turns the money in. This move makes him an outcast, ostensibly because none of the other officers will trust him to keep their under-the-table goings-on silent. This alienation is furthered by the death of his partner, himself a drug junkie, and by the pending divorce between him and his wife. Of course, the wife gets the child, and Roberts is left alone and miserable, with nothing but his job and sense of justice. Said another way: stock hero detective character. In what is purportedly a gangster film, Roberts’s sappy monologue about his child and estranged wife seems out of place.

That said, in the relevant and interesting portions of the film, Crowe has no problem in the tough cop role, and sails by easily. Washington is the classy yet humble gangster par excellence, but also does a great job capturing our inherent conflict with the character of Frank Lucas — he’s extremely likeable, and we want to like him, but he’s also a drug dealer and criminal, responsible for countless deaths. The writing, directing, and Washington’s performance do not absolve Lucas fully, and we’re (rightly) left with the hint of a bitter taste in our mouths when Lucas is able to parlay his cooperation with the law into a reduced sentence.

Ruby Dee, in her limited screen-time role as Lucas’s mother, also delivers a solid performance. Most impressive, though, is Josh Brolin’s performance as Detective Trupo, a corrupt New York City cop. Brolin oozes cockiness, pragmatism, and cynicism in just the right proportions: he’s despicable and sleazy, but it’s not over-the-top.

Visually, the film does a good job of reproducing the look-and-feel of 1970s New York, in its sets and costumes, including a true-to-form reproduction of a Muhammad Ali-Joe Louis fight night at Madison Square Garden (not that I was there to speak to this first-hand). As far as the cinematography is concerned, don’t expect any convention-shattering shots here. That said, the film isn’t entirely guns, explosions, Denzel Washington in nice suits, and Russell Crowe kicking ass; interposed throughout the film are some fairly graphic short scenes of drug use and drug overdoses.

All told, “American Gangster” is not bad but does not live up to its potential. An Oscar-winning cast and a gripping story should yield something that is more exciting than the final product we are left with. Scott’s take on a domain dominated by giants like Scorsese and Coppola falls short; while “American Gangster” is passable, it’s no “Godfather.” I’d pass on this and see a classic instead — you’ll thank me later.