Eugene Weekly : Movies : 11.08.07


Black & White
Smart gangster epic has blood, needs heart

AMERICAN GANGSTER: Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Steven Zaillian. Cinematography, Harris Savides. Music, Marc Streitenfeld. Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, RZA, Ruby Dee, Common, Carla Gugino, Cuba Gooding Jr, Armand Assante, Lymari Nadal and John Hawkes. Universal Pictures, 2007. R. 157 minutes.

Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas in American Gangster

Have you ever met someone you hoped would inspire you — a college professor, perhaps, or the chef at your favorite restaurant — only to find the person uninspired and therefore uninteresting? To be skilled is one thing, but without inspiration, skill looks merely competent. This is the problem exemplified by American Gangster, a film that is focused and resolute in execution but lacks the intimacy and uniqueness required to be truly great. The film tells the story of two seemingly different lives linked by the logic of corruption: Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a straight cop in a crooked department, a weary but wired crusader, while Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a dedicated bag man for Harlem’s mob boss, is a daily witness to corruption, particularly in the black community. When Frank’s mentor dies, he goes into business for himself, determined to sell heroin at half the going rate. The year is 1969, and from Harlem to Vietnam, people are shooting up to the moon and back.

According to the true story (“The Return of Superfly”) published in New York magazine in 2000, Frank Lucas flourished by virtue of discretion. He turned the prejudice of the day — namely the belief of the mob and NYPD that a black man couldn’t mastermind a sophisticated criminal operation — to his advantage. Frank buffeted that belief by staying under the radar, which is ironic given that he went all the way to Vietnam for his product, using military aircraft as couriers. Once stateside, he branded his drug Blue Magic, a form of heroin so potent that it immediately monopolized the market. In the film, Frank becomes immensely wealthy, allowing him to provide for his extended family. But Frank’s success creates hardships for others, including Richie’s partner, who eventually overdoses on Blue Magic. That sets Richie on a collision course with Frank, albeit a long and winding one, as Richie joins a federal narcotics unit to track down the drug’s supplier.

American Gangster, for all its sheen, is a well-built machine with a mass-produced soul. Given the talent involved, it doubtless will be considered for several awards. But the film is merely equal to, rather than greater than, the sum of its parts, largely because those parts — Washington and Crowe — don’t collide until late in the film. Washington is as good as he’s been in some time, but as an icy killer, his Frank is cool but dull. As a dope dealer with a surfeit of pride, benevolent and low-key in one moment but murderous and violent the next, Frank is a pastiche of gangsters we’ve seen before, from The Godfather to Goodfellas to even The Untouchables. Crowe is more impressive because, for a straight arrow, his personal life is bent out of shape. Josh Brolin shows up with his moustache, something he’s been doing a lot of lately, and adds a little something sinister as a detective on the take. Director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner but also Hannibal), writer Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List but also All the King’s Men) and Brian Grazer (uber-producer of 8 Mile but also Flight Plan) collaborate here for the first time. Considering their potential, it isn’t unreasonable to expect the extraordinary. Instead, we get simply ordinary.

Given all the machismo, it’s the little things that grab you in American Gangster, like Ruby Dee’s moving performance as Frank’s mother. Her final scene is terrific. And Cuba Gooding Jr. resurfaces in a dark and convincing role as Nicky Barnes, the only real competition for Frank. American Gangster succeeds on a number of levels while containing very few surprises, other than depicting a richly diverse black cast in a genre usually reserved for Irish and Italians. It wants to be a black Scarface, but Scarface was naked, emotionally and psychologically. American Gangster just gives us nudity. It is a film carefully created by true professionals who might have done better by messing things up.

American Gangster is now playing at Cinemark and VRC Stadium 15.