Denzel Washington goes the bad-guy route again in Ridley Scott's snazzy yet unsteady American Gangster. As usual, when Denzel occupies a movie, he's the primary reason to see it, but Scott's capturing of late-'60s and early-'70s Harlem is impressive, and having Russell Crowe in the mix certainly helps.
But ultimately, the teaming of these three cinema giants is passable, uneven entertainment--and not much more.
Washington plays Frank Lucas, the infamous American heroin dealer who made millions by cutting out the middleman, getting his drugs straight from Southeast Asia and selling them from a tenement factory in Harlem. He would use military transports to get drugs into the country, including the coffins of dead soldiers.
Scott parallels the story of Lucas' rise into a kingpin power with that of Det. Richie Roberts (Crowe), a semi-virtuous cop in a sea of corruption. Roberts' calling card among his fellow policemen is that he turned in nearly $1 million in unmarked bills found in a botched drug deal, making him stupid in their eyes. While Roberts might see himself as virtuous, he does play baseball with mobsters, sleep around on his beleaguered wife (Carla Gugino) and possess a mean-assed temper.
As we see Lucas' empire build, we witness Richie developing from a grunt cop into the head of a secret drug task force looking to take down the big guys. Washington's Lucas is a conflicted man, buying his old mother (Ruby Dee) a mansion and employing his family, while committing cold-blooded, light-of-day murders in the streets.
Washington won an Oscar for Training Day, a film in which he played a cop without a trace of good in him. Even his radiant smile conveyed evil with no bounds. This time out, Washington portrays a man who is somewhat likable, making it all the more chilling when he commits violent crimes, like smashing a partygoer's head in a piano. His performance, and Scott's direction, managed to keep me off balance the entire time.
The same can be said for Crowe, who plays a man determined to do some good. He has to, because he's spent a lifetime screwing over people close to him. In a stunning courtroom scene, his wife blasts him, because being a good cop means he basically gets a pass for being a lousy husband and father. It's one of the film's most powerful moments.
Police corruption is represented best by Det. Trupo (Josh Brolin). Trupo is the very definition of a greaseball, and Brolin makes him a memorable baddie. This follows Brolin's turns as the sickening zombie doctor in Planet Terror and the questionable cop in In the Valley of Elah. Brolin is having a banner year, and he certainly isn't afraid to show his ugly side. Next up for Brolin: a troubled lawman in the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men.
The film is more than 2 1/2 hours long, but I actually left it feeling a little shortchanged. My gut feeling is that the movie needed to be a little darker and meaner. It's a funny thing when such a long movie feels incomplete, but that's the case with American Gangster.
The finale feels too tidy and smells like a copout. Captions are used to show us Lucas' fate and the fact that Roberts, who became a lawyer, actually defended him. That's a movie in itself, and Scott's captions during a montage feel like a tease. Showing Frank going to jail would've sufficed.
Still, you are getting great performances from Washington and Crowe, with a good-looking piece of direction from Scott. American Gangster might not equal the sum of its parts, but it is still a decent piece of movie-making.