Ever tried to get blood out of an alpaca rug? Apparently it’s a bastard. “Don’t rub it in!” barks Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) at his underlings. “You’ve got to dab that shit!” You just can’t get the staff, can you? Even if you follow this New York drug lord’s lead and hire a few of your relatives to run the various fronts – a garage here, a dry cleaning business there – that provide a legitimate cover for his illicit activities. Indeed, take away the vast quantities of South Asian heroin Lucas smuggles into the US, and you’d have the model for any family-run business. Smartly dressed, diligent and with a strict work ethic, Frank is the epitome of the self-made ’70s black entrepreneur – albeit one who isn’t above shooting a rival in the head in broad daylight, just to make a point. All this Harlem globetrotter wants is his share of the American Dream. He’s just prepared to go a little bit further – Thailand, to be precise – to get it…
From the moment he’s introduced pouring gasoline on a bound man and calmly setting him on fire, it’s clear Washington hasn’t had a part this good since Training Day (watch him sink his molars into lines like, “See, you are what you are in this world. That’s either one of two things: either you’re somebody, or you ain’t nobody.”) The problem American Gangster faces is giving him a worthy adversary – a dilemma writer Steve Zaillian (whose script is based on a New York Magazine article on the real Lucas) grapples with throughout Ridley Scott’s two-and-a-half hour epic. On the surface at least, Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts is a no less layered character: an NYPD cop whose decision to hand in $1 million of confiscated mob money instead of keeping it for himself has made him a pariah in the eyes of his colleagues.
With a junkie partner (John Ortiz) by his side, a bitter ex-wife (Carla Gugino) to support and his own links to the New York underworld, Richie has more than enough back story to fill his half of the movie. Why, then, do his scenes drag where Denzel’s soar? Answer that and you’ll have the reason why Gangster – for all its bravura photography, assured performances and flawless period detail – falls just short of the cast-iron classics Ridley attempts to emulate.
At its best, though – witnessed in scenes such as a Thanksgiving montage that cross-cuts deftly between Lucas’ lavish banquet and a junkie overdosing on his product, or a dramatic raid on his narcotics factory that turns into a blizzard of bullets, blood and choking white dust – you can see flashes of the greatness to which the Blade Runner man aspires. American Gangster is not Ridley Scott’s Heat, his GoodFellas, or his Godfather. But it’s fair to call it his Departed: a top-of-the-range example of genre filmmaking from a 70-year-old veteran director who seems driven to get one of each under his belt, before he hangs up his viewfinder.