The self-importance of Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" announces itself with its title. This is not intended to be just any old crime thriller. It's going to be archetypal.
The fact that it's "based on a true story" lends credence to the notion that what we are seeing is more "real" than the usual trumped-up gangster scenarios. But despite its heavy-duty packaging, "American Gangster" is in many respects just as hokey and melodramatic as its less authenticated forebears. It's an entertaining pulp pastiche with pretensions.
Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas, who served as driver and bag man for Harlem's famed hood Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). Bumpy's death in 1968 propels Frank into the big leagues. Aided by a relative stationed in Vietnam, he secretly imports pure heroin from Thailand on US military planes and becomes very rich. He brings over his four brothers from North Carolina to help in the operation. He installs his hardscrabble mother (Ruby Dee) in a rural mansion. He marries Miss Puerto Rico (Lymari Nadal).
Intercut with Frank's odyssey is the more familiar saga of the fed who tracks him down. Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe, is a working-class New Jersey guy who takes law courses at night and has a marriage on the rocks. He's also 100 percent honest, which doesn't endear him to his fellow cops. When a bust uncovers a million dollars in the trunk of a car, Richie helpfully returns it all.
Frank and Richie will have their showdown, but director Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian postpone the inevitable until almost the end of this overlong 157-minute movie. Meantime, we are ping-ponged back and forth between the two men's lives, and the parallels are workmanlike. Frank and Richie are presented as tough guys working opposite ends of the system. Frank, who thinks nothing of addicting half of Harlem, is blithely amoral; Richie is doggedly incorruptible.
"American Gangster" is often best around the edges. Without making a big deal about it, Scott reveals how the Mafia, while putting up a businesslike front, deplored the incursion of black gangsters into the drug trade. It shows how Frank controlled his turf as much through fear as through power. (In one sequence, just to show he can get away with it, he shoots a loudmouth rival point blank on a crowded street.)
Washington does a good job with a difficult role. Frank does not dress flashily or live big because he believes that doing so would make him a target, and so he has the aura of a man too embittered to enjoy his own spoils. Washington's performance may be too tamped down to be truly exciting, but emotionally it rings true.
Crowe is highly proficient but he doesn't provide enough psychological shadings. However, he has the requisite masculine force for the role and that counts for something in a movie where everybody is trying to outswagger everyone else.
The two sharpest performances in "American Gangster" belong not to the two leads but to Ruby Dee as Frank's mother, who has a truly savage moment near the end when she confronts her gangster son, and Josh Brolin, as the most crooked of cops.
Scott doesn't play up the degradation Frank's heroin wreaks in his community, as if to do so would be unnecessary or, worse, uncool. But by holding back the horrors, he succeeds in making Frank something of a folk hero. Crime may not always pay in the movies, but it usually glitters. "American Gangster" tries to set itself up as a nightmare rags-to-riches saga – a kind of African-American sidebar to "The Godfather" – but it too easily coasts on the thrill of the chase instead of focusing on why the chase was necessary. Grade: B