"American Gangster" is based on a true story, but that doesn't make it any less familiar and obligatory. A crime drama told from both sides of the law, the picture follows two menone a drug lord rising in wealth and illegal activity, the other a noble detective with a troubled private lifeas their paths move ever closer to intersecting. The problem is that, for north of two and a half hours, the story meanders without purpose and no palpable connection is ever made between the audience and the characters. This is strictly paint-by-numbers filmmaking any way you slice it, and not even the individually riveting performances from stars Denzel Washington (2006's "Deja Vu
") and Russell Crowe (2007's "3:10 to Yuma
") can save it.
Spanning several years between 1968 and the early 1970s, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) travels into the jungles of Bangkok and comes away with 100% pure heroin that he smuggles back to the States via military transport. So begins a prosperous underground business that transforms Frank from a ne'er-do-well into a hugely rich drug kingpin of Harlem. Hiring relatives as helpers, buying his no-questions-asked mama (Ruby Dee) a mansion, marrying the beautifully exotic Eva (Lymari Nadal), and, it turns out, bribing the police force as a means of keeping them quiet, Frank seemingly has the world around him on a string.
Enter Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a detective working toward becoming a lawyer and priding himself on his honesty within the police force. When he turns in nearly a million dollars in cash that he finds in the trunk of a car, he is not viewed as a hero, but as a pariah willing to rat out his own if the situation calls for it. As Richie's life slowly tumbleshe is also involved in a custody battle with ex-wife Laurie (Carla Gugino) over their sonhe is pulled into investigating the neighborhood's staggering heroin onslaught following the overdosing death of his own partner. Richie is sure that Frank is the mastermind, but he's going to have to dig for hard evidenceand convince those he's working beside of Frank's guiltbefore an arrest can be made.
"American Gangster" was written by Steven Zaillian (2006's "All the King's Men
") and directed by Ridley Scott (2005's "Kingdom of Heaven
"), two well-respected artists who have become consistently unreliable in recent years. This latest project is epic in length but not in feel or scope, and it's difficult not to imagine how much more layered and visually explosive it might have been with the more experimental Tony Scott (2004's "Man on Fire
" and 2005's "Domino
")Ridley's brotherat the helm. Ridley, by comparison, doesn't appear to have his heart in it.
While the editing by Pietro Scalia (2007's "Hannibal Rising
") keeps the pace moving, the narrative is something of a Cliffs Notes version of Frank Lucas' life, with the details of his heroin business and relationships with such one-note people as wife Eva and cousin Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) only scratching the surface. The same holds true for Richie Roberts, whose subplot involving his ex-wife and child is rendered completely ineffectual by the viewer not getting to properly meet his son or recognize what a loss it would be for Richie if he moved across the country. Technical credits, from the nondescript music score by Marc Streitenfeld (2006's "A Good Year
") to the murky cinematography by Harris Savides (2007's "Zodiac
"), are unusually underwhelming. Mostly, the movie's style would best be described as "point-and-shoot."
As Frank's and Richie's stories press onward, their connection to each other taking an inordinately long time to reveal itself, director Ridley Scott botches the chance to explore these men on a more meaningful level. They, like the overstuffed ensemble of virtual cameos, are not pulled off so much as flesh-and-blood peopleand certainly not characters worth actively caring aboutbut as moldy archetypes of the crime cinema mold who never step above clichés. As Frank, Denzel Washington swerves between affability and cold-blooded killer within seconds of each other. In this way it reminds of his Oscar-winning work in 2001's "Training Day
," though that role was written more fully and cohesively. Russell Crowe is excellent as the hypocritically virtuous Richie, painting him as someone who upholds the law but not his own personal indiscretions. Crowe's work is authentic and powerful, the latter a trait that the actor himself possesses rather than the decidedly threadbare character he portrays. Of the expansive supporting cast, Ruby Dee (1999's "Baby Geniuses
"), as Mama Lucas, deserves notice for hitting the film's most dramatically sound scene out of the parka heightened confrontation between herself and son Frank as she warns him of the mistakes and subsequent irrevocable damage he is about to cause the ones he cares about.
"American Gangster" might have been forgiven for its unevenness had the third act delivered something special. It is presumed that the whole film is leading up to the fateful moment when Frank and Richie face off against each other. When the time comes for this, however, it is over in a blink; to call it an afterthought would be to suggest that one might actually think about it even following the viewing. Without learning on an intimate level what makes Frank tick and the details that have gone into his criminal rise to the top, "American Gangster" is but a superficial redux of subject matter covered more sharply and specifically in 2001's "Blow
" and 2005's "Lord of War