There's something dead in Denzel Washington's eyes nearly all of the way through Ridley Scott's American Gangster, which takes what should have been a mesmerizing slice of urban historical grit and grinds it into roughly two hours of standard issue cinema. Washington is playing Frank Lucas, a real-life crime boss who for a period lasting from the late 1960s into the following decade, ran Manhattan "from 110th to 155th, river to river." A real slick character who doesn't need to strut his worth on the street, Lucas hates flash like a junkie hates rehab: It reminds him of all he truly is but doesn't want to be. Facing off against him is New Jersey narc Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a womanizing tough guy with a short fuse but a heart of gold (aren't they all), who's so clean that when he and his partner come across $1 million in untraceable cash he had the bad manners to turn it all in without taking a single bill for himself. In a big-city police department in the 1970s, boy scout behavior like that will just plain get you killed -- the guy who's not on the take is the guy who could very well sell you down the river when the grand jury comes sniffing around for who is on the take.
Ridley Scott has a good thing going here, tossing these two Hollywood bigshots into the ring and letting them play cops and robbers while he slathers on the period detail with a trowel. There's some serious Superfly outfits (including a godawful $50,000 chinchilla coat that plays a surprisingly key part in a plot twist), a generous helping of soul music, enough fantastic character actors to choke a horse (Idris Elba, Jon Polito, Kevin Corrigan, an incredibly sleazy Josh Brolin, and so on), the specter of Vietnam playing on every television in sight, and the odd enjoyment one gets from watching cops in the pre-militarized, pre-SWAT days take down an apartment with just revolvers, the occasional shotgun, and a sledgehammer to whack down the door. Scott's smart enough to let the story cohere organically and without rush, keeping his main contenders apart for as long as could possibly be borne, making them fully developed characters in their own right and not just developed in opposition to the other. But there's something in this broad and expansive tale that can't quite come together, and it seems to start in Denzel's eyes.
Continue reading: American Gangster Review