Directed by Ridley Scott
In American Gangster we see the story of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. Frank Lucas is the most powerful man in Harlem, with the most powerful heroin empire of it's time. Richie Roberts is the good-natured cop on his tale. What follows is enthralling film of cat and mouse that stretches over 157 minutes, and provides us with as much violence and nudity needed to hold us over for that long. The film speaks with the power of a message film, but the message seems so misguided we leave scratching our heads about what we've spent the last two and a half hours learning. Drugs are bad? Organized crime is more profitable when headed by someone who's more of an entrepreneur than a criminal?
The story of Frank Lucas is impressive in itself. As an accomplice for "Bumpy" Johnson who ruled Harlem, Lucas learned the ins and outs of how to be ruthless, and when Bumpy dies, he takes over where he left off, and then some. Lucas goes on to buy 100% pure heroin right from the source in Southeast Asia, and by cutting out the middle man, he is able to sell better heroin for half the price. It's capitalism at it's best.
The story of Richie Roberts is less glamorous; he's a narcotics officer fighting a custody battle with his ex-wife and studying for an upcoming bar exam. He is exiled from his job at the local New Jersey police station when he turns in a million dollars worth of unmarked drug money. How can you trust a guy who's willing to turn in that kind of money, instead of sharing it with the boys? His peers don't attempt to find out because they've already lost the ability to trust him.
The action of the film starts when Roberts is given the chance to start his own circle of investigation into drug-busting, including several other officers he knows are as honest as he is. When they follow many popular mafioso into an Ali-Frazier fight, who is the guy with the closest seat? Frank Lucas, accompanied by his Puerto Rican beauty-queen wife, and decked out in elaborate furs. Through a series of lengthy investigation, Roberts and his men discover what was thought to be impossible: Frank Lucas, a black man, was able to work above the mafia, and make millions in the drug racket on his own.
Frank Lucas is played by Denzel Washington in a performance that is very much inspired, if not hackneyed. He's ruthless (the movie opens with him lighting a live man on fire) but has moments of mercy (he shoots the same man to stop his agony). This tennis match between the two sides of Lucas' character never seem to be very balanced. He has moments where he explodes with extreme violence, but yet he still goes to church with his mother on Sunday, and he's the one who says grace in front of Christmas dinner. He can trust the people who work for him, because close to all of them are members of his own family. It's one of those Denzel performances that elicits extreme authority (he shoots a man in the head in the middle of the busy Harlem streets with no consequence).
Frankly, the most intriguing part of American Gangster has nothing to do with gangsters. Richie Roberts' (Russell Crowe) investigation is told with such grit and fire, it seems to be a much more interesting cornerstone to place a movie upon. His paunched belly, five o'clock shadow, and the heavy bags under his eyes are striking and telling. He's an honest cop, and is quite at odds in a force filled with corruption. Unfortunately, his honesty as a law officer seems to be about the only good quality in Richie's personal life. His wife plans to leave to Las Vegas, taking their son with her.
The film stumbles around when it comes to it's storytelling. This screenplay is very raw and uncompromising, but somewhere along the line between being written and being put on the screen, it picked up many blemishes that signal tidy Hollywood filmmaking. Subtlety is a word that nobody in this film seems to have heard of, and this movie wants so badly to one-up the gangster pictures of the past with edge, it instead seems remarkably polished.
We have the character of Frank Lucas who is not sure whether or not he wants to be Don Vito Chorleone or Tony Montana, and Richie Roberts doesn't know whether he wants to be Frank Serpico or Vincent Hanna. The movie wants too much, including the recognition that those films received, and what we have is a movie that's not sure if it wants to be Little Ceaser or The Untouchables. I make references to so many movies because this film borrows so many components from them, and in the process has a serious identity problem within it's genre.
The biggest issue within the film's ideology is in the end. When Roberts has finally cornered Lucas, Lucas agrees to rat out a plethora of corrupt cops, in exchange for getting reduced time in prison. We see Lucas smiling as the cops are put away, but what does his face look like when thirty members of his own family are arrested as well? It's good that Frank Lucas exposed corruption, but do we have to make him a hero for it? In Goodfellas, they had the decency to explain that Henry Hill was still a bastard after he ratted out his compatriots, because after a life of immorality, he used even more immorality to get himself off the hook. Frank Lucas, on the other hand, is made to look like a saint.
The director, Ridley Scott, seems to do what he does in a lot of his films: take big, exciting ideas, and water them down for the viewing public. There's excitement in this movie--a very powerful drug bust scene toward the end pulsates with energy--and the movie is not dull. You just get the sense that you're being cheated because the movie takes the formulaic way out, rather than dealing with raw reality. It tries to take the stage of an epic, but the film's 157 minutes is fattened by a lot of scenes that are unneeded: Roberts' custody hearings with the usual ex-wife who demands him to make the choice between work and his son, as well as many scenes involving a strung-out Cuba Gooding Jr. playing a stylish drug dealer named Nicky Barnes.
The film reminded me a lot of another film: Heat. They both are stories involving a distressed, but honest cop trying to take down the sharp, but ruthless criminal. But that film attempted to blur the lines between good and evil, explaining that there is no good without evil (and interestingly enough, while Heat is probably twenty minutes longer than Gangster, it is not too long). This film, though, just wants all the glory of all the films that it samples bits and pieces from without having any of it's own innovation. It's not that easy, Ridley.