Heat, Michael Mann's 1995 cops-and-robbers epic, is best remembered for a nonevent. The movie was hyped as the first onscreen pairing of two of the best actors of their generation, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, who never shared scenes in The Godfather Part II. But in the three-hour-long Heat, the actors only appeared in two scenes – one a soft-spoken sit-down at a diner that rarely showed them in the same shot, the other a short, virtually wordless final encounter. The nation reacted with a collective "You mean, that's it?"
Ridley Scott's American Gangster runs a similar risk by pairing two of our most charismatic movie stars, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and keeping them apart for most of another lengthy crime drama. (Let's just forget that they co-starred in that Terminator wannabe, 1995's Virtuosity.) In American Gangster, when Washington's Harlem crime lord and Crowe's narcotics detective finally get in the same room, near the end of a two-and-a-half-hour film, the confrontation doesn't disappoint. Without resorting to showy bluster, the two actors feed off each others' intensity, like two contentious alpha males locked in the same cage.
Watching American Gangster, you don't always buy what Scott is selling, but the satisfying climax seals the deal. The cast ultimately lives up to the film's sweeping social statements that emulate the gritty idealism of Serpico more than the bloody melodrama of Scarface.
Based on the magazine article "The Return of Superfly," American Gangster tracks the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Washington), who initially serves as driver, muscle and right-hand man to Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), a kind of folk-hero mob boss in late-1960s Harlem. Bumpy's the kind of seemingly beneficial crook who bemoans gentrification and gives out turkeys at the holidays, and his untimely death leaves an underworld power vacuum.
Lucas, perceived as a stooge and lackey (particularly by Idris Elba's powerful drug dealer), seizes power through a bold entrepreneurial move. Thanks to contacts in the U.S. military, he goes to the jungles of Vietnam, buys heroin from the source and sells better product more cheaply on the streets of Harlem. As Lucas watches pimps, hookers and junkies introduce his "Blue Magic" to the market place, the soundtrack plays Sam and Dave's rollicking "Hold On, I'm Coming."
Meanwhile, honest cop Richie Roberts (Crowe) struggles to keep his integrity in an era of rampant police corruption. Roberts' defining incident comes when he discovers a car trunk filled with a million dollars in cash at a drug drop. In a classic example of "No good deed goes unpunished," he turns in the money, only to face disdain from his colleagues and even criminals. Steven Zaillian's script pushes the point extremely hard, although the logic is shaky. Do his colleagues mistrust him for naiveté, or the suspicion that he's secretly corrupt? And if most other New York cops are already corrupt, as the film suggests, what's the problem?
The film hammers the idea of Roberts as a kind of urban Don Quixote, leading a Special Narcotics Bureau while struggling to pass his bar exam, waging a custody battle with his wife and contending with other demons. Crowe excels at playing tortured heroes – behind his soft eyes, rage contends with regret – but it's like Roberts is lousy with tarnished nobility.
If Crowe's role is overdetermined, Washington's goes undermotivated, and the film takes awhile to hint at what makes him tick. Once Lucas corners the Harlem drug market, he reveals himself as a family man, going back to Greensboro, N.C., to enlist his relatives into his inner circle and buy his mother (Ruby Dee) a mansion. With his fiercely controlled personal habits, Lucas could be a role model for white-collar business, and he dismisses one pimped-out pusher (Cuba Gooding Jr.) because "the loudest one is the weakest one."
Washington conveys Lucas' coiled ambition and frayed sense of control as he incurs more enemies. When flunkies try to clean bloodstains from a rug, he has a hissy fit: "You don't rub that, you blot that!"
The film strives to earn the "American" part of the title by offering Lucas' success as a metaphor for African-American empowerment. Grossly underestimated by law enforcement and law breakers alike, Lucas looks out for his own while getting the upper hand with the Old School Mafia (represented by a hammy Armand Assante). The idea that Lucas sticks it to The Man by selling African-Americans cheap, powerful drugs proves more knotty than American Gangster really wants to deal with. The film turns its focus on heavies everyone can hate: cops on the take, led by Josh Brolin's palpably hateful, bullying detective.
Nuances of character seldom prove to be Ridley Scott's strong suit. As a director, he comes across more as an artist of color and light, treasuring his cinematographers' craft. Scott's most memorable images include the coppery cityscapes of Blade Runner, the scorched yellows and golds of Gladiator, and the ruddy deserts and azure skies of Thelma and Louise's second half.
American Gangster revels in its earth-toned ghetto alleys and corners, suggesting that garbage-strewn vacant lots comprised half of New York City circa 1970. American Gangster's moral shades of gray prove more elusive to the director, but at least his leading men generate no shortage of heat.
See Felicia Feaster's review of Mr. Untouchable.
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