American Gangster

November, 2007, Thriller

Directed by:Ridley Scott

Starring:Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ruby Dee, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, John Hawkes, RZA, Carla Gugino, and Idris Elba

British producer/director Ridley Scott’s films are always glossy, fast-paced and stuffed with familiar Hollywood faces. From his flashy break-out movies, (Alien, Blade Runner) to the Oscar winners (Thelma & Louise, Gladiator) there’s always something interesting to look at in a Scott picture, even if the treatment of its subject matter is pretentious, (Kingdom of Heaven). Moviegoers don’t always get their money’s worth, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying on Sir Ridley’s part.

That attention to visual scope and celebrity acting both aids and bedevils Gangster, which glamorizes the exploits of real-life drug kingpin Frank Lucas, who fed Harlem’s insatiable heroin appetite during the Vietnam War era. By building an organization that stretched from sourcing in Thailand to distribution in The Big Apple, Lucas developed a highly lucrative criminal empire until he and his brothers were brought down thanks to the efforts of Ritchie Roberts, an unassuming cop turned lawyer who bagged Lucas and then assisted in his successful prosecution for racketeering. After serving 15 years of a 70 year sentence, (reduced for his role in securing the convictions of corrupt members of the police force who facilitated his lethal activities) Lucas was released and made the subject of a documentary on his exploits, thus proving - - along with Brittany, Paris and Lindsay - - that the wages of sin can often buy celebrity status.

Denzel Washington portrays Lucas as street thug who rises through good grooming and a GQ wardrobe to become a business man who wouldn’t look out of place at a Harvard Business School reunion. With his elegant good looks and carefully tailored suits, Washington doesn’t demonstrate the troubling depravity he demonstrated in his Oscar-winning role as a crooked cop in Training Day. As a result, Gangster glamorizes the thug while sloughing off his role in making life a living hell for his customers. The film contains numerous scenes of shooting up, but they’re so detached from the flow of the movie that they lack the power to see the Lucas’s success for what it really is; cynical profiteering built on the pathetic suffering of his customers combined with the methodical corruption of the policemen he loathed for their tacit support of his criminality.

Russell Crowe’s blue collar New Jersey cop is no match for Washington’s ostensibly chic desperado; while there’s dogged determination in the actor’s portrayal, he stays on the surface of his character’s motivations, producing a curiously bland hero, not unlike his depiction of Jim Braddock, the Depression-era heavy-weight champion he portrayed in the surprisingly unsuccessful Cinderella Man. As Crowe demonstrated earlier this year in 3:10 to Yuma, he has the capacity to mesmerize audiences in roles that offer him the opportunity to inhabit conflicted personalities, (L.A. Confidential, The Insider) but he’s not nearly as compelling when playing a less complicated leading man. 

Screenwriter Steve Zallian, responsible for such “high concept” scripts as Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York and All The King’s Men provides plenty of verbal grit for the low-lifes and bent policemen depicted here, but he wanders deeply into racial and professional bigotry too; Gangster’s world is so thoroughly peopled with lawless African Americans and completely venal members of law enforcement it’s a wonder Manhattan didn’t descend into chaos during the period covered by the screenplay. Scott’s unrelenting focus on this depravity may make for an entertaining diversion, but it’s utterly lacking in any kind of accurate balance.

As befits someone with over 2000 commercials to his credit, Scott packs a lot of visual punch into his films. Working with director-of- photography Harris Savides, Scott captures the grubby look of urban slums and police stations with the same sense of brisk confidence he brings to the faux-elegant manses of Lucas and his Mafia confederates. The script moves confidently from New York to Washington to the Far East as Lucas puts his global enterprise together and Gangster’s screenplay never allows the audience to become confused in sorting out its myriad characters. Ruby Dee does a nice turn as Lucas’ overly indulgent mother and Josh Brolin plays an avaricious detective on New York’s drug enforcement taskforce with a swaggering arrogance as ugly as it is mesmerizing. 

The verdict? There’s lots going on in American Gangster, from the violence of its opening gangland execution to its informative fade out more than 2 and ½ hours later, but the results are a mile wide and an inch deep, as forgettable as a T.V. dinner once the appetite for mayhem has been satisfied.       

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