"Three stars (R)
It appears that American Gangster is going to be a major player in this year's movie awards marathon. The crime story is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, which has a lot of writers excited. In some of the early reviews, the vast majority of which are positive, the pairing of Washington and Crowe is compared to that of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat. Writers are also juiced about the re-teaming of Gladiator veterans Scott and Crowe, having forgiven them for A Good Year, their leaden 2006 foray in romantic comedy.
From the way I've phrased this, you've no doubt figured out that I don't share the enthusiasm of those reviewers. Before I get into why, let me first assure you that I'm not simply being contrary. Whenever a movie comes out that gets overwhelmingly positive or negative reviews, there are a handful of writers who can be counted on to take the opposite position. I don't know whether it's an ongoing coincidence, an attention-getting device or plain orneriness. I just know that I don't want to be lumped in with those guys.
American Gangster isn't a bad movie. Despite running a whopping 157 minutes, it moves at a fairly good clip. The based-on-fact story, about a drug kingpin with a strong sense of propriety and the cop trying to bring him down, is well-assembled and interesting for the most part. But for a film to be epic in scope as well as length, it needs a sense of electricity, and American Gangster lacks that crucial spark. The movie is a serviceable diversion, but it doesn't feel like an event.
The lead actors are part of the problem. Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, whose enormous nerve and out of the box thinking allowed him to become the top man in the late ’60s and early ’70s heroin trade in Harlem. Washington has successfully played villains before, most notably in his award-winning turn as a rogue cop in Training Day, but this role also calls for flair and Washington, who has always suffered from stick-up-the-ass-itis, can't manage to make his character anything more than a priggish crook.
Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, a New Jersey police officer shunned by most of the other cops for turning in nearly a million dollars in drug money. Roberts is honest to a fault on the job, while his personal life is a mess. Crowe gives the role a low-key spin similar to what he did in Cinderella Man. This may be appropriate for the character, but it doesn't help the film in the electricity department.
The supporting players are generally strong, but the screenplay keeps the majority of their characters at the surface level.
American Gangster strives to be a classic crime epic, but never crosses that elusive line between good and great. Incidentally, if you find the police corruption aspect of the film intriguing, rent Prince of the City, Sidney Lumet's big, long, terrific 1981 crime story starring Treat Williams and a slew of outstanding character actors. Now there's an epic that feels like an epic.