When American Gangster was announced, with actors
Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and directed by
Ridley Scott, it seemed like a can’t miss project.
It wasn’t the fault of the cast. Denzel has two
Oscars and Ridley Scott directed Crowe to his
Oscar-winning performance in Gladiator. Crowe’s
performances in A Beautiful Mind and The Insider
perhaps were even better. But plans are not done deals.
Despite its acting firepower — Ruby Dee, Chiwetel
Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, et
al. — American Gangster has few sparks. It fires
It’s not a bad film — it’s a solid effort. It
seemed as though it might contend for best picture of
the year, but it’s nowhere near top ten. It’s
workman-like and generic.
Basically American Gangster is two movies. One is
about the rise of Frank Lucas (Washington), an
African-American who becomes a drug kingpin in Harlem. The other is about Richie Roberts (Crowe), a cop turned federal investigator who focuses on drugs and corrupt New York cops.
One of the major problems is that in this lengthy
157 minute movie, Denzel and Russell appear together
for only about ten minutes. And their mutual
appearance occurs about two hours and twenty minutes
into the movie. It’s not enough, not nearly enough.
Director Scott and writer Steve Zaillian almost
seem to have taken their actors for granted. They
don’t give them challenging scenes.
The main characters don’t have much dimension. We
find out late in the movie that Richie is Jewish when
someone gives him an ethnic insult.
Richie does wear a Star of David, but a Star of
David does not make a characterization. There is
little if any sign of ethnicity in Richie’s character.
In fact, he seems to have walked in from some soap
People might think that because the story is based
on actual people (I hate to use the term real people),
it limits them. But it doesn’t have to. Casino was a
very effective fictional account of Lefty Rosenthal, a
In American Gangster writer Zaillian tries to add a
little pizazz, by changing the “real” Richie into a
womanizer. That’s tacky.
Scott and Zaillian seem to concentrate more on the
business allegory than on character, but both are thin.
As Frank says, the most important things in business
are “integrity and hardwork.” That might be a good credo for filmmaking.
In American Gangster there are juxtapositions that
are supposed to speak volumes. They only speak
syllables. While Frank is hosting a lavish family
Thanksgiving dinner, Richie is alone eating a sandwich
with crushed potato chips. Get it? The gangster is eating high on the turkey;
the cop is eating low on the chips. Scenes such as
this must have held more promise on the printed page.
There’s not a single memorable character in
American Gangster. Serpico blows away Richie Roberts.
Training Day’s Alonzo Harris puts Frank Lewis to
shame. Armand Assante is back playing a crime boss for the
1,000th time. Still, it’s good to see Ruby Dee, who
plays Frank’s mother.
Director Ridley Scott seems discombobulated in the
crime genre. None of his movies — from Alien to
Kingdom of Heaven — show that he is adept or
inventive in that well-worn genre.
Where are Thelma and Louise (from a movie directed
by Scott) when we need them? Instead we get Frank and
Richie. Scott and Zaillian have turned two extraordinary
actors into run-of-the-mill players. Even a great
actor needs a creative script.
American Gangster is no Godfather. It’s more a
long-winded uncle, who talks a good game, but has
difficulty delivering more than shopworn attitude.