American Gangster (2007)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Yul Vazquez, Armand Assante, Ted Levine, Carla Gugino
Directed by: Ridley Scott
When I first saw the trailers for American Gangster, it looked somewhat unremarkable, with director Ridley Scott in particular inspiring a feeling of general apathy in me. But, I generally enjoy the work of stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, who can make the average tolerable, so the movie found itself solidly in the middle of my “to see” list. Then, to my surprise, the movie that looked like a classier retread of Scarface started getting a lot of awards buzz, including a Golden Globes nomination for Best Motion Picture Drama (making it one of 7 nominated… which is kind of laughable). Given my tendency of seeing all buzzworthy movies at this time year (more out of desire to have an informed opinion than necessarily a validation of the importance of the awards), American Gangster suddenly became a “must see”, even though my anticipation for it remained about the same as when I first saw the trailer.
Having seen it, I now get why all the Oscar prognosticators saw it as a contender, but it’s not because Ridley Scott crafted a superior work of cinema. Rather, American Gangster is just the sort of middlebrow faux-epic star vehicle that runs about half an hour too long that awards shows eat up.
To be fair, it’s possible that I can no longer appreciate this kind of Hollywood police procedural, having been taken in by the glory that is the first four seasons of The Wire. There were several times while watching the drug investigation that made me think about The Wire, and all I could think was how inferior Scott’s film came off in comparison to the HBO show. Of course, The Wire may very well be the best drama in the history of television, so the comparison really isn’t that fair to American Gangster. Still, the fact that I sat there wishing I was at home re-watching season four doesn’t speak well for the movie.
The movie tells the true life story of Frank Lucas (Washington), who took over the Harlem heroin trade in the 70s by importing pure heroin from Vietnam during the war. Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe), an overly honest cop in a corrupt force, attempts to bring the entire Lucas empire down. Washington manages to elevate the movie with another strong performance, infusing the movie with his standard quiet dignity, giving the movie a sense of gravitas almost equal to its designs to be an epic. Which might explain why an otherwise underwhelming movie has been getting praise it doesn’t quite deserve.
The biggest problem with the movie is a lack of focus. The story seems to be about Roberts investigation into Lucas, but most of the movie is given to Lucas, detailing his rise and his organization. It’s as though during either filming or editing, Scott was so enamoured with Denzel’s performance that he decided to change the focus of the movie, without ever picking out a solid character arc to build around. Instead, it’s an overlong biopic that never quite decides what it wants to say about Lucas, but still uses Roberts’ story to guide the movie through.
So we wind up with a movie about the pursuit of a drug lord that we spend most of the movie cheering for, without getting too attached to the good guy or into his pursuit (even though it has 157 minutes to try and get us involved). The result is a solid but underwhelming showcase for Denzel Washington that has unfulfilled delusions of grandeur.