There’s something dead in Denzel Washington’s eyes nearly all of the way through Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, which takes what should have been a mesmerizing slice of urban historical grit and grinds it into roughly two hours of standard issue cinema. Washington is playing Frank Lucas, a real-life crime boss who for a period lasting from the late 1960s into the following decade, ran Manhattan ‘from 110th to 155th, river to river.’ A real slick character who doesn’t need to strut his worth on the street, Lucas hates flash like a junkie hates rehab: It reminds him of all he truly is but doesn’t want to be. Facing off against him is New Jersey narc Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a womanizing tough guy with a short fuse but a heart of gold (aren’t they all), who’s so clean that when he and his partner come across $1 million in untraceable cash he had the bad manners to turn it all in without taking a single bill for himself. In a big-city police department in the 1970s, boy scout behavior like that will just plain get you killed — the guy who’s not on the take is the guy who could very well sell you down the river when the grand jury comes sniffing around for who is on the take.
Ridley Scott has a good thing going here, tossing these two Hollywood bigshots into the ring and letting them play cops and robbers while he slathers on the period detail with a trowel. There’s some serious Superfly outfits (including a godawful $50,000 chinchilla coat that plays a surprisingly key part in a plot twist), a generous helping of soul music, enough fantastic character actors to choke a horse (Idris Elba, Jon Polito, Kevin Corrigan, an incredibly sleazy Josh Brolin, and so on), the specter of Vietnam playing on every television in sight, and the odd enjoyment one gets from watching cops in the pre-militarized, pre-SWAT days take down an apartment with just revolvers, the occasional shotgun, and a sledgehammer to whack down the door. Scott’s smart enough to let the story cohere organically and without rush, keeping his main contenders apart for as long as could possibly be borne, making them fully developed characters in their own right and not just developed in opposition to the other. But there’s something in this broad and expansive tale that can’t quite come together, and it seems to start in Denzel’s eyes.
Although the film is pretty evenly divided between the cop’s and the robber’s stories as they come arcing toward each other, this is clearly the tale of Frank Lucas (the movie’s not called American Narcotics Detective), and as one of the most notorious and fascinating gangsters in American history, Denzel simply fails to deliver. Lucas was a country boy from the Carolinas who came up to New York and worked as driver and bodyguard for revered and feared Harlem crime lord Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, one of the last of the great underworld bosses. Bumpy taught Lucas everything he knew, so that when he died of a heart attack in 1968, Lucas was ready to take the reins. He almost immediately upset the apple cart (meaning the Mafia, who supplied drugs to Bumpy) by importing heroin of an unheard-of purity straight from Southeast Asia and selling it for cheaper than the competition, ultimately doing the criminally unthinkable by becoming the Mafia’s supplier. It’s an astoundingly gutsy move, particularly given the array of corrupt cops and Mafioso arrayed against him, but Denzel’s got Lucas’ grim determination down cold, and the whole paradigm-shifting event (which included secretly importing the heroin in the coffins of dead American soldiers, an act pregnant with symbolic weight which Scott weirdly chooses to gloss over) is easy to swallow.
It’s the rest of the character which Denzel doesn’t seem to get. Crowe shows that whatever dry spell he may have been in is certainly over, and he will be able to play conflicted hard-case heroes with superb élan until he’s dragged off the stage. But Denzel has a cold steeliness in his expression that rarely wavers, only when he’s seducing (in record time) his future wife Eva (Lymari Nadal), doing good by his mother (like every bloodthirsty but sentimental movie gangster does), or making threats. We know that Lucas hates showiness and the police, loves efficiency and being his own boss, and trusts only his family — he imports the whole clan from down South to run his operation — but that’s about it. Frank Lucas seems to have been a fascinating person, it would be nice to see a great movie about him.
The DVD includes two versions of the film, one of which adds 18 more minutes of footage plus an alternate ending. A second disc adds more deleted scenes, an alternate opening, and copious historical info about Frank Lucas.