Directed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster is a big, blue-toned bruiser of a crime epic, telling the true story of 1970's Harlem crime lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the Jersey cop who brought him down. Scott's working with rich, real material here, as screenwriter Stephen Zaillian adapts Mark Jacobson's 2000 New York Magazine piece "The Return of Superfly." The interesting thing is how Scott's epic-sized story doesn't stumble on the facts but, rather, on fragments of fiction -- the echo of other movies in American Gangster grows and grows until it drowns out what Scott's trying to say. That doesn't mean that Scott's film isn't well made or compelling, but the constant stream of references and nods to other movies makes the film look a little shabby, clad in stolen grandeur like a giant's robes upon a dwarfish thief.
American Gangster opens strong, as Denzel Washington's Frank Lucas pours gas on another man, sets it alight and then pumps a couple of shots into the flaming victim as rough mercy. The message to anyone expecting the noble, beloved Denzel Washington of the past is clear: No more Mr. Nice Guy. Frank is the driver for Bumpy Jones (Clarence Williams III), the benevolent gangster-lord of Harlem. But Bumpy, incensed by a discount department store, mutters a final judgment before dying: "This is what's wrong with America -- it's gotten so big you can't find your way ... What right do they have cutting out the suppliers, pushing all the middlemen out, buying direct from the manufacturer?" Bumpy's not long in the ground before Frank seizes on his dying mentor's words and spins them to his own benefit -- he's going to cut out the middleman, go around the Mob-controlled drug interests that regulate the flow of heroin into New York, purchase direct from the Southeast Asian dope kings, flood the streets with pure, cheap drugs.
Meanwhile, Richie is facing his own challenges on the other side of the law. The cops are, in general, so corrupt that an honest cop is a pariah. When Richie seizes and surrenders $970,000 to his superior officer, the cynical joke -- "Where's the rest of it?" is funny only because it's based in truth. Most of Richie's fellow cops would have taken the cash, and they can't trust someone so trustworthy. Zaillian's script works to portray Frank and Richie as mirror-image strivers -- Frank looking for new possibilities in dealing, Richie going to law school at night -- and shows us how innovations in crime are matched by innovations in crime fighting. Frank wants to work around the wasteful power-structure of heroin importing; Richie wants to work without the corrupt infrastructure of the local cops. Frank brings his relations up from down South to form his distribution network in a family-focused structure borrowed from the Italians; Richie gets appointed to a Federal-level task force on narcotics.
And all the while, Scott's direction is full of familiar visions (smoke-filled rooms where sunlight claws in through Venetian blinds, rain-swept concrete) and more than a few unexpected touches (we see Franks' flight to Asia fly overhead, framed in intersecting street signs marking where 8th Avenue meets 106th Street). It's not the style of American Gangster that's lacking; it's the substance. Is American Gangster a parable of American capitalism skewed Bizarro-world style, where men like Frank sell narcotics because it's the most profitable work available? Is it a cautionary, rise-and-fall tale about a drug dealer's life and times? Is it the portrait of a dogged cop trying to crack a narcotics smuggling ring? Or of a cop fighting the more insidious evil of police corruption? Or is it just a crackling tale of cop-versus-crook, with two formidable foes circling each other warily, never meeting until their final showdown? And just as the possibilities listed above evoke a host of other films -- Traffic, Scarface, The French Connection, Prince of the City, Heat -- so too does American Gangster. There too many moments when Scott's epic feels like a patchwork made of other films, other images; that's not helped by specific decisions in the film. One music cue recycles Bobby Womack's title song from Across 110th Street; the real funk reminds you the film's fake. Frank's twisted vision of the American dream ("This is where I'm from. This is where my family is. My business. My mother. This is my place. This is my country. This is America.") sounds like a paraphrase from The Godfather.
There are many strong moments where something unique flashes through American Gangster, and those moments happen often enough to make you wish there were more of them. Frank's such a businessman that he considers how Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) dilutes Frank's dope to maximize street profit "trademark infringement." Richie only becomes aware of Frank's importance after spotting him seated many rows ahead of better-known criminals at the Frasier-Ali fight: "His seats were phenomenal. ..." And in the film's most tense scene -- and the one that most powerfully suggests what American Gangster might have been -- Richie's search of Frank's dope plane is derailed by a sneering U.S. Attorney (Roger Bart) because he simply can't believe the idea Frank's been able to get a direct connection, racism overriding police work: "No f**king n****r has accomplished what the American Mafia hasn't in a hundred years!"
That's a rough statement, but then again, '70s New York was a rough place; it's one of the few moments when you can feel American Gangster giving us real truth instead of reel images, ugly facts instead of pretty film. American Gangster isn't bad or poorly-made or unsatisfactory; it's just good enough to make you painfully aware of all the ways it could have been better, too big and observed to watch as simple entertainment and too glossy and glib to watch as meaningful drama. American Gangster traps itself -- between fact and fiction, between the real and the iconic, between true crime and crime movies -- and you can feel the struggle between those opposing, conflicting concepts. American Gangster tries to show us the struggle between cops and crooks, right and wrong, haves and have-nots; what it mostly shows us is a movie at war with itself.