Summary: It has Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and plenty of power moments, but this gangster tale falls short when it comes to lasting impact.
"American Gangster" is a volatile throwback to '70s filmmaking from director Ridley Scott, who's on firmer ground here than he was with "A Good Year," a misguided romantic comedy also starring Russell Crowe.
I hate to go all Hollywood on you, but it's possible to think of "American Gangster" as a cross between "Scarface" and "Serpico," a bifurcated tale of drug smuggling and New York City police corruption.
The movie, based on a New York Magazine article, also offers a trenchant bit of social commentary about the ways in which racism pervades every corner of American society, including crime. The cops have trouble believing that a black man -- real-life gangster Frank Lucas, the American gangster of the title -- could establish a multi-million dollar heroin importing business on his own.
In a deliciously perverted twist on the capitalist impulse, Lucas proved them wrong. During the Vietnam War -- when a few corrupt GIs began smuggling heroin out of Southeast Asia -- Lucas traveled to Thailand to set up his own supply system. He conceived a daring business plan that eliminated middlemen and passed the savings along to his customers, a time-honored retail objective only this time applied to the heroin trade.
Washington plays Lucas with carloads of cool, another tightly coiled performance from the master of tightly coiled performances. Lucas can shoot someone at point blank range and then happily return to his breakfast. He's also committed to helping his family, bringing a fair amount of nepotism to his business, employing a variety of relatives wherever possible.
But Lucas (and I think this was a mistake) is only half the story. Scott -- and screenwriter Steve Zallian -- also focus on a cop. Crowe's Richie Roberts is presented as a rarity, a detective who's so scrupulously honest that he turns in $1 million of untraceable drug money. Most of Roberts' fellow cops think he's crazy -- or at minimum a threat to their complicated system of payoffs.
Crowe eventually must merge the movie's two narrative streams. Lucas based his success on maintaining a low profile, but he attracts Roberts' attention when he shows up at an Ali/Frazier championship fight wearing a boast of a fur coat that his wife purchased for him. Crowe and Washington share some scenes together toward the end, and both are in fine form, but the movie's dual focus -- probably intended as a way of showing that the both criminals and cops are caught in the same rotten web -- tends to create a bit of narrative stutter.
The result: a good movie where a great one may have been possible. We've seen a lot of what "American Gangster" has to offer before, and the movie's tumultuous parts never quite coalesce into an astonishing, revelatory whole.