Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” tells the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a driver and bodyguard to Harlem’s head hood, who takes over his drug business, cuts out the middle man and corners the market.
The story is set during the late 1960s into the early 1970s, and the Vietnam War factors into the plot. After hearing news of a drug epidemic among troops in Vietnam, Frank hops a plane and meets up with a family member stationed in Asia. Frank goes directly to the source, thus returning with a product better than anything else on the street. He sells his heroin at half the price and rises above even the mob as the local drug king.
The story of Frank’s rise is paralleled by a drug task force headed by Russell Crowe who is searching for the top of the drug food chain. The racism of the era keeps this task force from even considering that Frank could be at the very top.
Washington won an Oscar for best actor when he got in touch with his dark side in “Training Day,” but he’s even better in “American Gangster.” The crooked cop he played in “Training Day” was a performance based in bravado, and, while the intensity Washington brought to the role was mesmerizing, the character lacked dimension. The film’s setup was good cop versus bad good and gripped on that level.
“American Gangster” goes deeper. Frank has bursts of startling violence that reveal Frank to be a possible sociopath, but at the same time he has a sense of family and will do anything for them. Washington has tender moments with Ruby Dee as Frank’s mother that make Frank more than just a ruthless killer.
In juxtaposition is Crowe’s Richie, a good cop who never compromises the law, but whose personal and family life is a wreck.
The screenplay by Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) doesn’t allow its two leads to fall into cliché and even plays against them. Frank is the one with the seemingly virtuous family values. On the surface, Frank looks like the upstanding citizen and Richie the deadbeat loser.
Washington and Crowe’s characters have different aspects of their personalities that pull at each other — aspects that redeem Frank and those that flaw Richie. Both actors balance these facets and are effective because they don’t play these parts of their characters as completely separate sides. Instead they use them as shadings. Crowe and Washington do not share the screen until well into the film’s third act, but it is worth the wait to watch two top actors work their craft.
Aside from the two leads, most of the supporting cast consists of stock characters, but they are given life and a lot of flavor by a cast of familiar faces including Josh Brolin (“Planet Terror”), Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men,” “Inside Man”), Ted Levine (“Silence of the Lambs”) and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Unfortunately, with the exception of Dee as the mother, the women in this film are completely flat. Lymari Nadal (TV’s “Battlestar Galactica”) and Carla Gugino (“Night at the Museum”) are left playing standard wife stereotypes with nothing remotely new or interesting to say. In a movie that strives for complex male leads, it is frustrating to see the women in the film slighted.
Although set during the Vietnam War and the war being critical to the plot, “American Gangster” is not a political film. Even so, the evocation of the era still carries weight. At the beginning of the year David Fincher’s “Zodiac” was also set during the tumultuous 1970s, a decade of political and social unrest.
That filmmakers seem drawn to subject matters from this era in a way becomes a reflection and commentary of our unrest, even if it is not latent in the material. Stylistically, Scott even adopts the gritty style of crime films of that decade including “Serpico” and “The French Connection.” Crowe’s Richie Robert is a flawed hero with a strong moral code, much like Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in their respective films.
Scott is a fearless director who is willing to tackle just about any genre with a diverse resume that includes “Alien,” Blade Runner,” Thelma and Louise,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Matchstick Men.” He is a filmmaker comfortable working on a grand scale, and here he delivers a complex character study that clocks in at nearly three hours, but that grips despite its length.