American Gangster

by Adam Z. Berenstain, SUNY Cortland

Posted in on Wednesday, Apr 9

American Gangster, the sprawling crime drama by Ridley Scott, succeeds handily as a catalog of particulars, but never quite brings its subject to life. The movie--based on real events--takes place in 1970s New York and chronicles (with exhaustive period detail) the rise of heroin dealing gangster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the New Jersey cop who brought Lucas down.

There isn’t much in the movie we haven’t seen before. Lucas is portrayed as a cruel businessman driven to brutality by the realities of the criminal life in Harlem, and Richie is so honest that he can barely work with his fellow cops. Both men struggle in their respective systems, suffering setbacks and successes private and professional, until finally colliding after a bloody police raid on one of Lucas’ drug hideouts. Yet we never quite get to know the men themselves. Washington and Crowe manage to suggest much about their characters’ minds and motivations despite a just-the-facts script and Ridley Scott’s craftsman’s distance from the emotional dimensions of the film. Crowe remains that unusual sort of movie star who can actually disappear into a role; his Roberts is a schlubby underdog with a tireless mind. Washington’s movie star charisma helps tell half the story of Frank Lucas, but it’s Washington’s simmering anger that gives us a glimpse of the real man. The women of American Gangster don’t fare quite as well. Carla Gugino is wasted in a voice-of-conscience role as Roberts’ suffering wife, and Lymari Nadal isn’t given much to do besides look lovely and slightly surprised in every scene as Lucas’ moll Eva.

But Ridley Scott movies tend to be less about character than the characters’ world, and here American Gangster excels. The film’s sizable supporting cast, including former Jame Gumb Ted Levine and RZA, breathes life into Scott’s film without overshadowing the two leads. American Gangster’s seamy underworld stretches all the way from Harlem to Bangkok, and throughout the movie Scott manages to balance beautiful set design and verisimilitude as well as ever. To the film’s credit, American Gangster feels a little like Steven Soderberg’s Traffic by way of David Fincher’s Zodiac. Yet those films told their stories though strong characters, while American Gangster is content to simply tell a story. For all the film’s qualities, I, like Frank Lucas’ legion of junkie clients, was left wanting more.

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