“Frank Lucas was one of the biggest drug dealers in the history of America, a black man in 1973 that was worth about half a billion dollars, and no one knew it.” – Denzel Washington
American Gangster is based on an article called The Return of Superfly that laid out the story of how Frank Lucas [Denzel Washington] went from being the driver/collector for a notorious Harlem crime lord [Clarence Williams III] to improving on his methods after his death – to the point where the Mafia actually worked for him!
The film’s parallel arcs follow Frank’s rise to power and the efforts of an honest, principled cop, Richie Roberts [Russell Crowe], to take down the drug kingpins of New York. Lucas’ arc shows us the dedicated, loving family man and the ruthless businessman; while Roberts’ arc shows us the principled cop whose personal life/family life is total disarray.
The Steve Zaillian script goes out of its way to balance between the lives or Lucas and Roberts, the film is clearly intended to be a showcase for Washington and Crowe. The problem is that the film is told in measured terms that make Lucas, by far, the more interesting of the two men. Washington steps up as the crime lord, making him come across as well rounded and even, at times, likable. Crowe’s Roberts, on the other hand, is married – but not to his wife and son, but to his job and his efforts to become a lawyer. As written, it’s a one or two-note character at best and suffers by comparison with Lucas.
The film is beautifully shot – almost every frame is perfect – and that’s a bit of a problem, too. Ridley Scott directs the film with such a measured, almost stately pace that even its bursts of violence seem stately, rather than ugly. This means that a lot of the film’s most impactful scenes [at least in theory] don’t have the necessary sizzle to really jolt the audience. Scenes with Lucas dealing with other crooks – and corrupt cops – barely hold our attention.
One thing that does work is the relating of how Roberts and his men brought Lucas down – and the ensuing way Lucas cooperated with him to not only take a lot of drug dealers off the streets, but three-quarters of the New York Drug Enforcement Squads. Only when Washington and Crowe are onscreen together does the film really grip – even though the scenes are relatively quiet.
For my money [and I paid to see this one], this film wasted a lot of talent – Ruby Dee [Frank’s mother, Chiwetal Ejiofor [Frank’s brother], Josh Brolin [one of the most corrupt cops], and Carla Gugino [Richie’s wife] among them. American Gangster is two hours and thirty-eight minutes of blatant play for an Oscar. At least it has some solid performances – unlike last year’s All The King’s Men – so I don’t feel completely robbed of my time and money.
Final Grade: C-