American Gangster (Universal), Ridley Scott's epic about Harlem crime boss Frank Lucas, never reconciles its desire to be the black Scarface— a bloody, balls-out fantasy of crime as a form of ethnic empowerment—with its aspiration to be something weightier: a grittily realistic treatise on race, capitalism, and social mobility in America. As a result, the movie is never quite pop enough to get audiences hooting and hollering and quoting favorite lines, nor smart enough to inspire passionate post-movie debate. Scene by scene, the film is unassailably well-crafted. (Whether there had to be so many scenes—the subplot-stuffed saga runs 157 minutes—is another matter.) But there's something oddly dull, even respectable, about Scott's adherence to the rules of gangster-film grammar.
It's almost incredible that anything about this movie could be staid when you consider its source material, a 2000 New York Magazine profile of Frank Lucas by Mark Jacobson, in which the 69-year-old kingpin, parked on the street corners of the neighborhood he once owned, spins eye-popping, impossible-to-verify tales of smuggling dope out of Southeast Asia on Henry Kissinger's plane. Lucas is a satanic charmer who can turn a phrase like nobody's business: The atmosphere at a high-stakes pool game was "so quiet you could've heard a rat piss on a piece of cotton in China."
When we first meet Ridley Scott's Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in 1969, he's a discreet driver and occasional hired gun for the old-school Harlem gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III). Bumpy dies of old age in Frank's arms, mumbling about his disdain for the newfangled chain stores that are taking over the neighborhood: "What right do they have cutting out the suppliers … buying direct from the manufacturer?" As the soft-spoken but merciless Frank takes over Bumpy's operation, that's exactly what he proceeds to do, eliminating the Mafia middleman and smuggling his dope direct from Vietnam in the coffins of dead soldiers.
Frank's unusual business methods allow him to charge half the price for a product twice as good, a dangerously pure heroin that goes by the street name Blue Magic. As a result, Frank has soon cornered the junkie market, infuriating both his Italian competitors and the crooked cops who depend on them for kickbacks. This brings Frank to the attention of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a New Jersey cop who's so clean that when he came upon a stash of $1 million, he turned it in—an act that's earned him the contempt of the entire department. Roberts is named head of a federal drug task force to investigate the source of Blue Magic, and although Frank soon emerges as a player, the evidence against him remains maddeningly slippery.
So, unfortunately, does the character of Frank Lucas, who should be the dark, pulsing heart of this movie. Instead, Washington's gangster is as opaque and iconic as the face on a coin. It's hard to know whether to attribute this indistinct quality to the script (by Steven Zaillian), to Washington's tight-lipped performance, or to something that exceeds both, a factor we'll call "Denzelitude." As I heard one viewer say on the way out of the screening, "I had my problems with the movie, but you just can't hate on Denzel." Precisely. Despite Washington's Oscar-winning excursion into villainy in Training Day, he's still somehow too measured, too refined and statesmanlike, to bring the gonzo crazy when needed. I found his performance in Training Day a bit hammy, but in American Gangster, Washington goes the other direction; he plays a drug kingpin so austere and restrained that we never understand Frank's true motivation. Is he simply a born businessman, who might in another time and place have made his millions in mergers and acquisitions? Or does he need to be a criminal—does he enjoy gunning down rivals in broad daylight and slamming people's heads into grand pianos?
Russell Crowe, as the cop-turned-prosecutor who's more honest than he is good (Richie's personal life, as we learn in an intrusive subplot, is in the toilet), delivers a more finely detailed performance, but that may be because the movie doesn't ask him to bear as much symbolic weight as Washington's title character. The title itself suggests that there's something quintessential about the Frank Lucas story, and at key moments he's given to pronouncements like "I can do anything I want—this is America!" But when it comes to unpacking that symbolic baggage, the movie is vague, falling back on pre-existing mob-film archetypes (the climactic scene, in which Scott crosscuts between a raid on Lucas' house and a formal church celebration, is straight from The Godfather). In a rushed and unsatisfying coda, Richie and Frank join forces to prosecute the bad cops (led by a marvelously slimy Josh Brolin).
The movie's central ambiguity is revealed in this ending. What should have been a clash of two opposing moral universes instead comes off as a wan buddy flick. What exactly is the story of Frank's rise and fall supposed to have shown us about gangsters, or about America? And if the answer is "nothing," shouldn't we have had more fun?