It’s good to be a gangster these days, in movies anyway. The crime films have become a real staple of most peoples “best movies” lists. There is a certain sort list of crime movies that seem universally loved, especially among male audiences. Of course The Godfather is on this list, so are Scorsese’s crime films like Goodfellas and Casino. A bit further down the list one comes across titles like Scarface and Heat. Last year we were treated to a new entry in this elite club of crime films, Scorsese’s Oscar winning triumph The Departed. Now, Ridley Scott is trying to enter this elite group of filmmakers with his sprawling, ambitious new film American Gangster.
The film tells the true story of two people’s lives in 1970s New York; the first is Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a major drug trafficker operating out of Harlem. The other is Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a police officer tracking his operation. Lucas was formerly the protégé of a major Harlem crime boss. When this boss dies Lucas decides to create an empire of his own. Unlike his mentor, who was basically a middleman bringing the Mafia’s product into Harlem; Lucas is interested in importing the product himself. Lucas achieves this by exploiting the chaos in Vietnam and bribing soldiers to import extremely pure “blue magic” heroin into the United States. As Lucas rises to power he buys his mother (Ruby Dee) a mansion and bring his brothers Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Turner (Common), Melvin (Warner Miller), Terrence (Albert Jones), Dexter (J. Kyle Manzay), and Stevie (T.I.) into the business.
On the other side of the law is Ritchie Roberts who is so by the book in his investigation methods that he turned in a million dollars in cash that he found in a bookie’s trunk. The NYPD at this time was so completely corrupt that this action actually makes Roberts and his partner Javier J. Rivera (John Ortiz) outcasts within the police force. Roberts eventually accepts a position at the lead of a federal narcotics task forces. Roberts and his team, Freddie Spearman (John Hawkes), Moses Jones (RZA), Alphonse Abruzzo (Yul Vazquez), discover Lucas’ operation and begin to track him down despite the interference of the corrupt NYPD who become an enemy of both sides headed by Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin).
American Gangster is a movie that sounded wonderful on paper. It had two major Oscar winning actors heading its cast, a master director behind the camera, it was in a genre that produces a lot of cool movies, and its trailer accompanied by Jay-Z’ excellent “Heart of the City”, looked thoroughly awesome. Unfortunately American Gangster is not the masterpiece I was hoping for, but it is quite good.
Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe both give great performances, but not ones that jump out at you. This has its benefits, if they weren’t careful such casting could have lead to a lot of yelling and scenery chewing, but those looking for Oscar caliber performances could be a bit disappointed. Interestingly both actors seem to be working a bit against type. Washington is playing a violent criminal, something he’s done before, but it’s still a stretch from his usually likable persona. His work here is not as good as his work in Training Day although he is given fewer scenes to really show off with. Crowe is also against type, he’s made quite a name of himself playing bad-ass masculine characters. Here he’s really playing a nicer, slightly more down to earth figure. This really more closely resembles his work in A Beautiful Mind than it does his work in, say, 3:10 to Yuma.
The rest of the cast is also solid but unremarkable. The many actors playing Lucas’ brothers are all good, they look right, they don’t distract the audience from the movie, and they do everything they’re supposed to do. None of them however, are really given the screen time to truly impress. The actors in Robert’s task force are in much the same situation, they are all solid, but don’t have the screen time to really show off. Ruby Dee, at the age of 83, gives a memorable performance as Lucas’ mother. Cuba Gooding Jr. also has a small, but memorable role as a drug dealer who makes an enemy of Frank Lucas.
The problems in the movie generally seem rooted in the fact that it is trying to be two movies at the same time. One movie is a more realistic and less glorified version of Scarface showing the rise and fall of Frank Lucas as a major drug figure. The other is a French Connection type story about a burned out cop trying to make the score of a lifetime. Despite the movie’s two hour and forty minute runtime, there’s just too much to fit in, in sufficient detail. Many have compared it to Michael Mann’s excellent film Heat in that it shows a cop and a criminal’s stories as one goes after the other. The difference is that Heat took place over the course of about a week and stuck mainly to being a procedural, while American Gangster spans a decade and really tries to delve into these characters personal lives. In many ways the chance to study the characters seems to be at war with the plot. In the Lucas story the plot seems to win out, we know all about his smuggling operation, but almost nothing about any of his brothers. In the Roberts storyline, the characterization seems to win out and we learn more about Roberts’ troubled divorce than we do about his actual police investigation.
Despite its smaller scope, Heat also had a longer running time, two hours and forty minutes is just not enough time to get in everything this film needs to really work. There are a lot of impatient people out there who will say American Gangster is too long when it’s really too short. Ridley Scott has had a long track record of making massive cuts to the theatrical versions of his films, and then putting the true version out on DVD. Scott’s directors cut of Kingdom of Heaven for example, was a vast improvement over the theatrical cut. Perhaps Scott will release an extended cut eventually that will work, but in the ADD stricken environment today it is unlikely that something like that will ever be put into theaters. Perhaps a better medium for the story would be as a premium cable mini-series. As it stands, American Gangster is quite well paced, it definitely goes by fast.
In general there are a lot of things here that just feel sloppy. I noticed a boom mike go into frame in a key scene, and Rapper RZA clearly has a Wu-Tang Clan tattoo visible on his shoulder in one scene. Alone these are not worth bringing up, but I think they are symptomatic of a larger disease. The movie just feels like it was rushed, it lacks a certain attention to detail one expects from a director like Ridley Scott. The cinematography here is to dark, the actor’s faces are often obscured by shadows. The soundtrack is also disappointing; when you’re making a gangster movie one expects a great Scorsese-esque soundtrack, one also expects great music in movies about the 70’s like Boogie Nights, and one expects great music from films centered in Harlem, therefore one would expect a positively epic soundtrack from a 70s Harlem gangster movie. Unfortunately this epic soundtrack is not found here. The best song present, Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack, was already used by Quentin Tarentino in is crime film Jackie Brown (who in turned borrowed it from a Blaxploitation film).
I don’t want to sound like a hated this movie, or even that I disliked it. On the contrary it is a perfectly respectable movie with a lot of great moments in it. There is a great montage midway through the film showing Thanksgiving from the perspective of Roberts, then of Lucas’ family, then of Lucas’ enemies, and finally of the drug users Lucas sells to. The film also gets really good in the last forty minutes when the investigation really kicks in and the two figures finally meet. There are a lot of great scenes like this, but the movie as a whole just isn’t as profound as it should be.
Ridley Scott, maybe wasn’t the right person for this project after all. Most of Scott’s movies are fairly simple, often taking place over the course of a few days to a week. Rarely do his movies span a decade like this and really chronicle characters in depth. Scott makes a noble effort here, but doesn’t quite make it. The standards for movies in this genre are really high, and this just doesn’t quite stand up to the challenges. The movie is worth seeing, but at the end of the day, Scott just isn’t as good at this stuff as Martin Scorsese.
***1/2 out of four