Ridley Scott brings two Oscar winners together in his so-called epic “American Gangster.” Based on a true story, the movie is set in the 1970s New York City where crack is proving to be a more precious commodity than gold. Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, a drug lord who outsmarts his competitors with a Walmart-ish business tactic. He eliminates the middlemen, so the product (drugs) can directly transfer from the source (in this case, Bangkok) to the customers (junkies). Through this strategy, Lucas can sell his “Blue Magic” brand at an affordable price to his sniffling clients’ delight. Meanwhile, New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (played by Russell Crowe) is sniffing a drug trail towards Lucas’ direction. Poor Richie has much work to do though; Lucas does not give much away and there are bribed cops impeding the investigation. How will the crackdown on the crack business occur?

Unfortunately, “American Gangster” is not all it’s cracked up to be. The director, the headlining stars, and the real-life story – they all sound so Oscar-worthy on paper, but they are otherwise when on screen. As much as I respect both actors, Washington and Crowe take a long long time to disappear into their roles. I’m let down that both remain in their comfort zone, as if the real people they play are custom-made to fit them, instead of the other way around. Of course, if you’d rather watch actors in a movie, rather than observe characters in a story, then this won’t be a problem. Of the two, Washington portrays a meatier role. He is especially effective when Frank violently snaps. The actor has such warm personable grace, that it is shocking when he goes acutely ballistic. As for Crowe, he rips his gladiatorial image by sporting a pot belly, but his presence does not carry much weight.

In fact, I prefer if Richie is demoted as a supporting player; he is not substantial enough to balance out Frank’s storyline. Think of great opposing duos of films past: DiCaprio and Damon in “The Departed,” Pacino and De Niro in “Heat,” and Ford and Jones in “The Fugitive.” These are classic pairings Washington and Crowe cannot match. The movie is better off with a Frank-centered screenplay. Plus, if Crowe’s screen time is cut down, the film would run shorter. Steven Zaillian is a talented screenwriter. He knows how to weave themes; he tends to overextend the tapestry however and this leads the film to drag. He burdens the first act with too much history and set-ups. I think it took some 45 minutes before I was genuinely interested. “American Gangster” should be more like first-rate cocaine, one taste and I should’ve been hooked.

If there is anything the movie is consistently brilliant at, it is its recreation of the era. You can count on director Ridley Scott to truly transport you to places, whether they be a mecha-future (“Blade Runner”), Roman times (“Gladiator”), or a war-ravaged city (“Black Hawk Down”). In the case of “American Gangster,” the depiction of the 1970s is so impressive; sometimes it overshadows the whole picture. From the clubs and famed boxing events in New York City to the exotic locales in Asia, the movie is authentically meticulous. Overall, the film is a solid effort, but falls short of greatness. Given its cred, underwhelming is a better term for it. What, you don’t agree? Are you going to shoot me? This is not the first time I’ve been pointed with a gangster movie on my face. I know a handful that’s even deadlier than “American Gangster.” Oh I don’t know, take a look at the filmography of someone named Martin Scorsese, for example. Compare and you’ll know the difference between getting shot and being blown away.

Grade: B+

Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Yul Vazquez, Armand Assante, and Ted Levine
Based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by
Mark Jacobson
Screenplay by
Steven Zaillian
Directed by
Ridley Scott
Rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality