Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is a good movie. Scott manages to pull off the not inconsiderable feat of making 157 minutes move so well that the film feels shorter than any number of movies running 30 minutes less. The story is interesting and entertaining. Stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are on their game. As an entertaining yarn of the “true story” variety about an honest cop—who is possibly too honest—up against a drug-dealing criminal mastermind, it’s hard to fault. As one of the great movies of the year … well, let’s put it this way, I went into the movie with 16 candidates for my 10-best list at the end of the year, and I came out of the movie with that number unchanged.
Perhaps it’s simply a case of not having the proper reverence for the modern gangster picture, but in this instance, I think it’s something inherently lacking in American Gangster that keeps me from admiring it as much as those behind the film would like me to.
To begin with, while both Washington as Frank Lucas and Crowe as Richie Roberts are up to their respective tasks, it’s worth asking how taxing those tasks really are. Is either actor called on to do anything very remarkable? Not really. They give good accountings of themselves, but they’ve both done better, more challenging work. (Crowe is unlikely to outdo his performance in 3:10 to Yuma any time soon.) Moreover, no one else in the film is handed anything better.
The wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor is largely wasted in the role of Huey Lucas, Frank’s brother and second-in-command. Josh Brolin as the spectacularly corrupt Detective Trupo is just that: spectacularly and obviously corrupt. His role is nothing more than entertaining villainy of the mustache-stroking variety (though in the case of the soup-strainer festooning Brolin’s upper lip, it’d be more like petting a medium-sized kitten). Ruby Dee as the matriarch of the Lucas clan manages to convey a sense of savvy dignity—something entirely attributable to the actress and not the script, which plants her squarely in the mold of loving gangster moms established by Beryl Mercer in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy back in 1931. The leading ladies—Lymari Nadal as Lucas’ wife and Carla Gugino as Robert’s ex-wife—fare less well. Nadal is simply called upon to be attractive and loyal, while Gugino is saddled with one of those stock “policeman’s neglected wife” roles.
It’s this kind of essential thinness of characterization that keeps American Gangster from being quite the great American epic Ridley Scott and company seem to think it is. That Scott has shot the whole thing in a kind of low-light, drab-gray color scheme is, I guess, meant to make it all feel more serious than it is. For me, at least, it only resulted in wishing that someone would buy Scott some lights. With these things working against it, it’s little short of amazing that American Gangster is as effective as entertainment as it is. That, I think, can be laid squarely at the enjoyable gimmick of its structure.
Here we have two of the most highly regarded actors of our time starring as adversaries in an epic tale of the rise of a drug dealer and the cop who brought him (and three-quarters of the police department) down—and the two don’t have a single scene together until the film’s last 20 minutes. What’s remarkable is that it not only works, it works in the film’s favor, keeping the expectation of their inevitable meeting going for the bulk of the film. Yes, some of the intercutting between Lucas’ conspicuous consumption and Roberts’ Spartan existence gets a little heavy-handed, but the structural concept is close to brilliant—and the smoothness of its execution closer still. At no time is the story out of balance. The shifts between the two are so impeccably timed that the stories seem to flow in an impossibly seamless manner.
When the two adversaries finally do meet, it proves to be worth the wait just to see Washington and Crowe play off each other in a series of splendidly intelligent scenes. It’s great stuff—almost great enough when combined with the structure to raise the film to the level to which it aspires—but really it’s no more than a conjuring trick. It’s a neat one, but a conjuring trick all the same. Rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.