Packed with star power, American Gangster entered theaters late last fall. With Ridley Scott at the helm and Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe on screen together for the first time in a dozen years, the film was sure to receive decent box office returns. More importantly than that though, the “based on a true story” gangster film is great fun to watch.
The film is really two separate stories, one with Washington and one with Crowe; the two actors do not even share a scene together until the final minutes. One of the stories follows a crime boss, Frank Lucas (Washington), and the other a cop, Richie Roberts (Crowe), who is out to take drugs off the streets. Roberts doesn't set out to get Lucas — he doesn't even know Lucas exists when he begins — but his investigations eventually lead him there.
At the outset of the film, Lucas is working for “Bumpy” Johnson, a gangster in Harlem, who teaches Lucas everything he knows about the right and wrong way to do business. Lucas views Johnson as a great man who always helped the community and takes Bumpy's lessons to heart. A power void is left when Bumpy dies of a heart attack and, in the end, it is Lucas who is able to fill that void.
Lucas's genius, and the way he was able to get to the top, is due to his figuring out how to get members of the U.S. Army to help him smuggle heroin into the United States. His supply line was inexpensive enough that he could keep the heroin far more pure than his competitors and still manage to sell it at a lower price. Lucas's plan works out so well that the Italian mob ends up working for him instead of vice versa.
Roberts, meanwhile, is the last honest cop in the New York tri-state area. He becomes an outcast for turning in a million dollars in unmarked bills that he and his partner easily could have stolen. Becoming a pariah is too much for his partner, who ends up overdosing on Lucas's heroin. Roberts is soon put in charge of a task force charged with curtailing the drug trade in the area and soon finds himself in hot pursuit of Lucas and his organization.
Scott deftly handles the movie and its two intersecting tales. Even at two hours and 38 minutes for the theatrical version (and closer to three hours for the “unrated extended version”) the film rarely drags and almost never repeats itself. From beginning to end, it is a great look at these two men who would do anything for what they believed. More time is spent with Lucas's rise and management style than Lucas putting together his case, which sometimes does leave the viewer wondering how logical leaps were made, but never are the leaps too big to be believed.
The biggest complaint to be made about the movie is that putting it together is almost too easy. There is a certain amount of retread in the picture, a distinct feeling that one has seen it before. Lucas, though a hardened criminal and a cold-blooded killer, is the loving family man who takes his family in, buys his mother a house, and makes sure his brothers are all employed. Roberts, despite being a great cop (and an honest one), is unable to keep his marriage together and can't even keep his promises to see his son. It is the good guy who lives on the edge, who flirts with disaster, and the bad guy who is happily ensconced in the loving bosom of family.
The film is, as stated above, based on a true story, so Scott may just be dealing with drawn from life material, but some of the moments do feel old. The cop-on-the-edge and family-man gangster are now well-worn images in the minds of the public however, and care must definitely be taken in constructing the characters so that they are more than these cardboard stereotypes.
The film does go much of the way needed to establishing these men as three-dimensional and the charisma of Washington and Crowe is more than enough push it the rest of the way. Both actors seem at the top of their game here and it is a shame that the two men are not on screen at the same time for more of the picture.
American Gangster comes to DVD on February 19 in several different editions, including a “2-Disc Unrated Extended Edition.” This edition features not only the theatrical version of the film (which has a commentary with Scott and writer Steven Zaillian), but also the extended version; deleted scenes; a full-length making-of documentary; and other documentaries that examine how the production came together, the research involved in it (including interviews with Roberts and Lucas), and the moment in New York's history that the film examines.
Though not always new and different, American Gangster is a good movie put together by people who can tell a great story, and with wonderful actors who give it their all.