As Frank Lucas, the brutal Harlem drug lord of American Gangster, Denzel Washington has a gaze as steady as a statue’s, and he wanders through the vibrantly messy, pre-Giuliani-time streets in an overcoat that accentuates his wide shoulders and coiled, urban-king swagger. There’s no doubt that Frank communicates strength — in fact, he communicates little else. Washington might be playing a senator, or Malcolm X all over again; his performance is smooth, confident, and more than a little familiar. Even as a gangster, he doesn’t transform — he doesn’t release his inner thug. He’s still every inch Denzel, all dour nobility.
Directed by Ridley Scott, and adapted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian from a New York magazine story entitled ”The Return of Superfly,” American Gangster is meticulous and detailed, a drug-world epic that holds you from moment to moment, immersing you in the intricate and sleazy logistics of crime. Yet the movie isn’t quite enthralling; it’s more like the ghost version of a ’70s classic. Scott nails the grit and clutter of the era — the bombed-out buildings, the litter and the rusty pay phones — and he structures the film almost pointillistically, with brief, heightened, coruscating scenes that flow into each other. American Gangster unfolds on parallel tracks, cutting back and forth between Frank Lucas’ reign and the stubborn quest of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a terse and scruffy last-honest-narcotics-cop-in-New York, to hunt him down. It’s like The Godfather, Serpico, Scarface, and The French Connection all mashed in a blender, along with a heavy helping of synthetic cocktail mix.
Lucas aspires to be a new kind of inner-city criminal. He’s a drug dealer who thinks like a CEO, without the plumage of previous black gangsters. His innovation, which puts him a step ahead of the Italian Mob, is to realize that with the Vietnam War raging, he can purchase uncut heroin directly from the Southeast Asian kingpins who supply it to American soldiers. Using his connections, he journeys upriver, like a grunt in Apocalypse Now, to the jungles of Thailand and buys 100 kilos. He then cuts the U.S. military into the deal by having the drugs shipped back on Army planes. Now that’s thinking outside the box.
Frank’s product, marketed as ”Blue Magic,” is purer than any other dealer’s, and he sells it for less. American Gangster tells the story of a singular underworld mind, yet Frank, as a character, isn’t fascinating, exactly. He’s an icon who hasn’t been completely filled in. Every half hour or so, starting with the opening scene, he commits some hideous cold-blooded execution meant to demonstrate he’s got more stones than anyone else. His fury, though, is tidy and compartmentalized. Even for a stealth corporate gangster, he doesn’t show a glimmer of it the rest of the time. You never feel — like you did when James Cagney shoved that grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face in The Public Enemy, or when Tony Montana unleashed his mad-dog machine-gun rage in Scarface — that Frank is a gangster because he lives and breathes violence.
Washington’s performance lacks idiosyncrasy, and it also lacks a whisper of the streets, though that, at least, is by design. When Frank’s Puerto Rican beauty-queen wife (Lymari Nadal) gives him a striped fur coat, he wears it to the 1973 Ali-Frazier fight, and that’s the tip-off to Detective Roberts that there’s a new player in town. Frank gets caught out the one night he dresses like a pimp. There’s an irony to that fact the film should have made more of. What works, terrifically, is Roberts’ fixation on Frank. Crowe plays him with a thick, hunched body and a squint of a scowl. He’s a caveman lug who has burned his life down to an ashy nub of integrity. Catching criminals is all he has; he’s every bit as obsessed with nailing dirty cops, like the shakedown bully Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin). Still, it takes a special doggedness to trap Lucas, since Frank’s secret weapon — the real way he sneaks drugs into the country, not revealed until late in the film — has a ghastly ingenuity.
Frank builds his empire with family, uprooting brothers, cousins, and his dear old mother (Ruby Dee) from North Carolina and moving them to a mansion that looks like the Tara of Westchester. Yet we barely get to know the brothers, even as they run Frank’s operation. (The great Chiwetel Ejiofor is wasted.) American Gangster is never dull, but it could have used more good old-fashioned melodramatic intrigue. The last section, in which Lucas and Roberts finally connect, is almost weirdly upbeat. Many movie gangsters have, of course, become role models, but this film might have been more convincing if it didn’t set out to create one. B