Given its distinctly classy provenance, it’s no surprise that American Gangster is riddled not with bullets so much as grave pronouncements. Within the first five minutes “Bumpy” Johnson, a criminal with a stranglehold on Harlem, manages to throw out more than a few as he rails against a society changing in ways he doesn’t approve of: “What right,” he asks “do they have of cutting out the suppliers, pushing out all the middle-men? Buying direct from the manufacturer.” He’s talking to his bodyguard and enforcer, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) who, soon after Bumpy dies — of natural causes, surprisingly enough — puts into place a business model his mentor would not approve of. The type of free enterprise that Frank Lucas embraces, with heroin as his product of choice, not only pushes the middle-man aside but shoots him in the head.
In a trait peculiar to this film, Lucas’s success is not because he is tougher or stronger but because he is savvier and, ultimately, a better businessman than his competitors. And that is what this film asks you to see him as: a simple businessman, albeit one dealing in a product that kills. It’s worth noting that, in the skewed morality of the film, it is only when Lucas begins to show off that his troubles begin.
That Lucas’s dealings lead to an unhappy end will come as no surprise if you’re versed in the life of the real Frank Lucas, upon whom the movie is based. For those who aren’t familiar with Mr. Lucas, I’ll refrain from any specifics except to say that American Gangster follows the template of gangster films initially etched out by the first two Godfather films and brought to a sort of gross perfection by Scarface. In broad strokes, one man rises through guts, smarts and immorality and then loses all that he has gained, usually due to the same flaws that allowed him to grab, in that famous Scarface tryptych, the “money, power and women” that he wanted.
But just as there are men striving for power, there are men committed to bringing them to justice. In a counterpoint to Lucas’s ascent, the film follows Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who seems to be the only honest cop in the Tri-State Area. Given control of a Federal Drug Task Force it is his dogged police work that eventually brings Lucas down, though some of that seems to have more to do with luck than solid detective skills. Crowe brings a weary tenacity to the part as well as a solid outer-borough accent (for an Australian) without any ego.
The question then is, given the high caliber of collaborators involved why does this movie feel so … empty? It tries so hard to be an important film, but despite its best efforts (or maybe because of this effort) it lacks the quiet grandeur of The Godfather films. American Gangster reaches for a great thematic resonance, attempting to set up Lucas as some sort of symbol for or representation of black America, but the attempt is weak from the get-go.
Finally, it feels as though Denzel Washington has played this part many times before. As always, he is both effortlessly and coercively charming but he’s given little to do but smile or be quietly menacing. While few actors could have done it better, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. The character himself is vaguely sketched out. The audience is asked to neither admire nor resent him and though this lack of judgment is admirable in its way, the moral disconnect within the film is one of its few major problems.
Despite this, American Gangster has an amazing feel to it. Attention to detail is the hallmark of Frank Lucas’s success, and Ridley Scott follows this dictum as a director, crafting his shots with purpose and panache. The film has an unpretentious flair without being stylized. Scott credibly recreates 1970s New York (or what I imagine to be 1970s New York). Whatever its faults, American Gangster is a skillful movie though maybe not a substantial one.