Ridley Scott’s gangland saga has been called the “Black Scarface” and the “Harlem Godfather.” It’s not difficult to see why critics might go there. The comparisons don’t hold up, however, particularly with regard to Coppola’s classic. His 1972 The Godfather takes the viewer on a tragic interior journey. We watch as Michael Corleone is transformed from a rosy-cheeked war hero into a cold-hearted mob boss. Following step by step, we understand why he does what he does; how he becomes what he becomes. A dozen other characters are brought as vividly and fully to life.
American Gangster is just 15 minutes shorter than The Godfather, and, in the two hours and 40 minutes Scott has to work with, he accomplishes something terrifically satisfying but infinitely more modest. He spins a gritty, gripping yarn about a ruthless drug lord and the incorruptible cop who brings him down. The story’s a corker, and he tells it with style, but never for a second do we see inside these two men. They walk on-screen fully formed. Everything that happens happens on the surface, in a single dimension. The picture’s flash and power are the flash and power of Hollywood — the incomparable chops of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. This isn’t a great movie so much as a movie with two great performances.
Washington plays (and, to a large degree, re-invents) real-life kingpin Frank Lucas. Lucas was a chauffeur and protégé of the Harlem crime lord Bumpy Johnson, who died in 1968. In the aftermath of his passing, Lucas blindsided both the African-American criminal community and the Italian syndicates by concocting an innovative scheme to dominate the inner-city heroin trade. He eliminated the middleman and the competition with one stroke by traveling to Thailand, buying personally from producers, and using bribed military personnel to help him ship the stuff back to the States. Some of his shipments were hidden in coffins carrying soldiers home from Vietnam.
Crowe is Richie Roberts, a Jersey police detective who has earned the enmity of his peers by turning in $1 million or so in drug money earmarked for dirty cops. He’s a bulldog who winds up heading a federal anti-drug task force because none of the locals want to work with him. When a friend ODs on Lucas’ high-grade Blue Magic, Roberts makes it his mission to follow the money to the top of the food chain. Because the crime boss keeps a low profile, dresses conservatively, and even attends Sunday mass with his mother (Ruby Dee), it’s not until the final act that Roberts even realizes whom he’s after.
American Gangster evokes seminal crime dramas such as The French Connection, Prince of the City and Serpico, even Goodfellas here and there. Certainly it invites comparison to Scarface and The Godfather. The fact is, however, that such comparisons serve principally to underscore where Scott’s film falls short, not to highlight what it does superbly. The fact that it lacks the poetry, scale and depth of Coppola’s vision, for example, doesn’t mean the viewer isn’t treated to a visceral, brilliantly detailed genre exercise.
Adapted from a 2000 New York magazine profile by Mark Jacobson, the film moves fast, looks sharp, and spins the true story of a hot-tempered braggart into a fictionalized portrait of a far more fascinating figure. Though Crowe is convincing in a smaller, less colorful role, the movie belongs to Washington. His Frank Lucas may bear little resemblance to the real one, but he’s a gas and a half to behold: meditative one minute, explosively violent the next, and dressed at all times like the world’s most dangerous CEO. Regrettably, Steven Zaillian’s script doesn’t take us deeper. While it’s exciting to learn what made Lucas millions, it might’ve been nice to learn what made him tick.