"American Gangster" (***1/2)
Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” is the most “New York” film the cinema has seen since Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” Every frame of the effort oozes the grime and grit of 1970s Manhattan, that sort of thorough representation that leaves you almost catching a whiff of sewer exhaust or feeling the bite of a northeasterly rain. And yet, as AMERICAN as the film and its subject matter are, there is the strange awareness that a Brit is at the helm, a sense of European observation to it all. Though Scott was a New Yorker in the 70s and knows the territory through which he navigates, it is that curious disconnect which makes “American Gangster” somewhat unique in this generally agreed upon sub-genre of hard-boiled cinema.
Denzel Washington stars as Frank Lucas, a figure of organized crime in Harlem during the 1960s and 70s who engineered one of the most deceptive drug trafficking schemes of the era. In a time dominated by Italian mafia, “middle men” and a generally accepted way of subverting law and order, Lucas is a man driven by his own convictions, hubris and greed. Acclimated to the business by famed Harlem kingpin Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), Lucas takes over the neighborhood from “river to river” after Johnson’s heart attack death in 1968. In doing so, he inevitably backs himself into a corner and ultimately exposes corruption within the New York Police Department and U.S. military to an extent unheard of even in an era of increasing public mistrust in governing officials.
Lucas goes right to the source in delivering a more potent product to his streets at a lesser cost. Taking note of G.I. drug use in Southeast Asia, he makes the trip to the heart of darkness, establishing his own source of opium in the jungle and transporting his product in the coffins of dead soldiers returning to the states. The level of conspiracy and outright corruption seems twisted and disturbing even today. Mark Jacobson’s “The Return of Superfly” (the New York Magazine article on which Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is based) tells us Lucas was pulling down upwards of $1 million per day (a “day” being between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., mind you).
Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a New Jersey police officer and part of a perpetually dying breed of honest cop, moonlights as a law student while serving subpoenas by day. But his “wouldn’t take a dime off the street” mentality is what leads to his appointment as the head of a task force looking into drug trafficking in the city, and specifically, this new, atypically pure substance on the streets: “Blue Magic.” Meanwhile his personal life is in shambles as his wife seeks full custody of his child.
In Richie Roberts, Russell Crowe finally brings another humble and internally compelling performance to the screen, his first such effort since an Oscar-nominated turn in 1999’s “The Insider.” Having made a career of seven-plus years on largely charismatic characters, it’s refreshing to see the actor go back to the roots of Jeffrey Wigand and Wendell White, roots that brought an audience’s attention to his talents in the first place.
Washington, meanwhile, is on fire as Lucas, summoning a lot of the bite and venom that went into his Oscar-winning performance in 2001’s “Training Day.” Lucas, as portrayed by Zaillian, was a man who believed in the camouflage of family and the resistance of flare. He stayed off NYPD radar for so many years largely because he lingered casually amidst the scenery, sporting modest suits and adhering to an incredibly typical routine. Washington does a fine job of conveying this honed and guided individual, only rarely giving glimpses of internal, human strife that illuminate motive here and there, but never so much as to warrant forgiveness (though the script would ask otherwise of the viewer). It’s easily a performance good enough for awards consideration.
Elsewhere a distinguished and varied ensemble gets the job done. Josh Brolin is properly slimy and brash as a crooked NYPD cop on the take, while RZA and John Hawkes knock out solid work alongside Crowe as members of Roberts’s task squad. Armand Assante overreaches (though is fun to watch) as a Mafioso in cahoots with Lucas, and Carala Gugino offers a lot of context for Roberts’s softer side. Chiwetel Ejiofor is capable as always (as a younger Lucas brother), but perhaps the most compelling performance of the piece comes from John Ortiz, as Javy Rivera, a tragic figure and early partner of Roberts’s who finds himself sucked into the world he’s supposed to be cleaning up.
Scott’s technical team, no surprise here, is second to none. Pietro Scalia in particular proves why he is one of the best editors in the game, pushing a two and a half hour story forward at a staggering pace. The photography from Harris Savides serves the territory accordingly and the period detail from design heads Arthur Max and Janty Yates never distracts and always feels accurate. Marc Streitenfeld orchestrates a somber score infused with a soundtrack that would make Martin Scorsese tap his foot. Great work all around.
It could be said that “American Gangster” ends on a somewhat ambiguous note (out of context), though most of the third act throws that ambiguity out the window. Nevertheless, a final image of Lucas on the street, Chuck D and Public Enemy preaching in the background, an OG in a brave new world of gangster thuggery – it’s a striking artistic decision, one of Scott’s most intriguing visual ideas in many a film.