Amid this fall's array of small, topical dramas, many of which have carried a medicinal aftertaste, "American Gangster" comes as something of a relief. It's a big, juicy 1970s period piece, one foot in real life, the other in the movies, the preferred stance of many Hollywood crime sagas. The film gathers steam slowly but surely. Near the end, after spending most of their screen time on parallel tracks, Denzel Washington, as Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas, mixes it up with Russell Crowe's narcotics cop Richie Roberts. Separately and, fleetingly, together, it's a pleasure to watch these two stars do their job. Director Ridley Scott's saga is full of lovely supporting work, too, from Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of Lucas' brothers to an outrageously hammy Armand Assante as a mafioso, to Josh Brolin, dripping with tough-guy privilege as a New York cop on the take.
If the film, laboring under the freight of Oscar expectations, settles for being good, not great, therein lies a reminder of how difficult a screenwriter's job really is. Steven Zaillian is the writer. If there's one word never associated with the man who adapted "Schindler's List" and directed "A Civil Action," "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and the recent "All the King's Men," it is the word "vulgarian." So right off we're at a slight disadvantage, given this story's milieu of moral rot.
Lucas made millions in a tricky line of work. Born in Washington, D.C., raised in North Carolina, Lucas came to New York City and went to work for gangster Bumpy Johnson. He rose to dominate the Harlem heroin trade in the '70s when New York was, in the words of the federal narcotics investigator played by Ted Levine, "an open sewer." He cut out the middlemen, buying extraordinarily potent product direct from Southeast Asia, transporting it back to the states in the caskets of dead American soldiers. Zaillian and Scott make a great deal out of this self-made metaphor for the American death machine.
The man who strung out half of Harlem on his product also gave away turkeys at the holidays and loved his mother and found a way to survive even after the end. (In a wheelchair now, Lucas appears in the HBO "making-of" documentary on "American Gangster.") It's a classic gangster archetype, the thug of honor living by his own code of ethics. It goes back to Capone and all of Capone's early-talkies progeny, from "Little Caesar" to "Public Enemy" to "Scarface."
I didn't clock it, but I believe "American Gangster" spends at least half of its two and a half hours with Det. Roberts, the honest cop—and a pariah because of it—struggling through a divorce (Carla Gugino plays his ex-wife) and a long, hard search for his heroin-dealing quarry. If the script feels like a bit of a see-saw, it's because Zaillian combined two separate scripts, one told from Lucas' viewpoint, the other from Roberts'. Only half-kidding, the writer told Script magazine that "it almost became a matter of dropping every other scene from each."
The structure is solid and there's nary a moment of narrative confusion. But I wish the movie was more about Lucas, and that Lucas emerged as a fuller, more frightening paradox. Washington is never less than compelling, but sometimes you sense the actor straining for that stone-cold-killer glare that does not come naturally. Lucas does all sorts of terrible things to people in the film's version of a real-life story, but Zaillian and Scott get their hands only so dirty. When they cut loose a little, everything snaps into focus, as in the scene where Lucas blows his stack while cleaning up his cherished alpaca carpet after a particularly bloody incident. At moments like this the filmmakers stop trying to inflate their story into a treatise on American gangsterism and concentrate on the details that reveal all about one particular gangster, coping with a mess.
The movie-movie material in "American Gangster" involves scenes of Lucas and his dear old mother (Ruby Dee), or the square-off with rival dealer Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr., in a role that may have been larger a couple of drafts ago), or the meetings with the smooth, silky Dominic Cattano, played by Assante. They're engaging; they're also familiar verging on derivative. It's the Roberts half of the story that feels fresher and more completely realized, because it's less hung up on presenting an archetype.
There are times you feel "American Gangster" is doing the old Hollywood shuffle, using a white character to sell a black man's story. But this is where actors come in.
As with the simmering encounter between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in "Heat," the conversation at the climax of "American Gangster" between Washington and Crowe may not be enough for some audiences expecting literal fireworks. But these two are so great together, so pleased to share each other's on-screen company, why complain?
On a technical level the film is extremely well-made, with cinematographer Harris Savides' desaturated color scheme a world apart from the '70s universe he helped fashion in "Zodiac."
Scott may not have been the best choice for this material. Neither, probably, was Zaillian. But craftsmanly, clear-headed genre storytelling is not easily achieved in any genre. While you may wish the superlatively talented cast of "American Gangster" had a classic to show for their efforts, a good modern gangster film is its own reward.