AMERICAN GANGSTER directed by Ridley Scott, written by Steve Zailian, with Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor. A Universal release. 157 minutes. Opens Friday (November 2). Rating: NNN
From one angle, American Gangster is simply the most expensive blaxploitation movie ever made. It's the archetypal rise-and-fall gangster tragedy blown up so big that only Ridley Scott could direct it, now that he's become, in his own words, a "maker of worlds."
Thirty-five years ago - which is where this story ends - American Gangster would have been made for $450,000, with Fred "The Hammer" Williamson as the gangster, some C-list white actor happy for the payday as the cop and someone like Jonathan Kaplan directing. It would not have starred two recent Oscar winners. And it certainly wouldn't have run 157 minutes, due to a weird ending and an obsessive attention to procedural detail.
Which is not to say that American Gangster is a bad movie. It has a certain gritty street grandeur, and there are few things more enjoyable than watching Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe act - if only they had more scenes together. And the brilliantly deployed period song score dodges a lot of the obvious choices.
A production with this kind of weight can afford some striking actors for small supporting roles - Carla Gugino as the cop's estranged wife, Cuba Gooding Jr. as rival drug lord Nicky Barnes, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the gangster's brother and Josh Brolin, an actor with a previously nondescript CV who's having an absolute career year in 07 (Grindhouse, In The Valley Of Elah and No Country For Old Men) as a very dirty cop.
Based on a true story, American Gangster opens with Washington's Frank Lucas and his small crew soaking a guy down in gasoline and setting him on fire. Then Lucas pulls out a big gun and shoots him five or six times, just to be sure and just so we have no doubts about what kind of a character he is. He may love his mama, but he is one lethal motherfucker.
As Lucas rises to become the great drug lord of Harlem by managing his own pipeline to the poppy fields of Southeast Asia, he finally shows up on the radar of Richie Roberts (Crowe), a veteran New Jersey cop working a federal drug task force. He first appears in the film finding - and turning in - almost a million dollars of dealer money.
That tells us what kind of character he is, and renders him untrustworthy to every other cop in the tristate area. This was an era of staggering police corruption in New York. (The Knapp Commission, which investigated NYC police corruption, is exactly contemporary with the second half of American Gangster, and the corrupt special investigations unit we see here was the subject of Sidney Lumet's Prince Of The City.)
American Gangster is big-boned, Oscar-targeted entertainment, with a little moral indignation thrown in to make sure we don't revel irresponsibly in the amoral splendour of the gangster lifestyle - as if anybody wants to go back to the big-pimpin', superfly-style of the early 70s . The fashion crimes alone are something to avoid. Indeed, Frank Lucas is resolutely opposed to those styles, and you get the sense that Washington never viewed Superfly as a fashion role model.
It's too long, not so much bloated as bogged down occasionally in its fascination with the minutiae of transporting a couple of hundred pounds of heroin from Vietnam to Harlem.
This is a movie that we've seen before numerous times, even if the names of the actors and directors have changed. In other words, it's a well-executed genre piece.
Mind you, last year a well-executed genre piece won best picture and best director at the Oscars.