Plot: “American Gangster” is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the heroin kingpin of Harlem in the 1970s. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is an outcast cop who heads up the newly formed DEA. Both have a deep pride in what they do, and approach a confrontation where only one can come out on top. Who’s it for: If you like Washington, this film is right in your wheelhouse. Crowe has the quieter role of the two, and anybody who is a fan of Mafia films will like this story.
Expectations: I assumed this film would be better than Crowe and Washington’s first collaboration, the 1995 film “Virtuosity.” Director Ridley Scott is hit (“Gladiator”) and miss (“A Good Year”).
SCORECARD Actors: Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas: If you follow baseball at all, you know the phrase “Manny being Manny.” Well, in “American Gangster” it’s Denzel being Denzel. He commands the screen and raises his voice with the best of them. The problem here is, you never get the sense of who Frank is or what makes him tick besides being a hard-working businessman who loves his family and doesn’t care what drugs do to the community. Grade: 6
Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts: The role of Richie was built for an up-and-coming actor. It’s not a flashy role, especially compared to Frank, but at the end of the film you realize how much you liked the character and his moral center. And yet here is Oscar winner Crowe, and he nails this role. Grade: 8
Talking: For some, it will be enough that Washington gets to yell. And you’re going to have to wait until the very end for Crowe to trade lines with Washington. Grade: 7
Sights and sounds: Ridley Scott is great at style but there doesn’t feel like much more. He constantly glamorizes violence and drugs but then shows random moments of how ugly heroin addiction can be. He seems to want us to love Frank and only slightly remember what he does for a living is wrong. Grade: 6
PLOT SPOILERS Best Scene: I’m going to go with “most interesting scene,” which was Frank traveling to Bangkok to cut out the middlemen and buy his heroin direct. It’s a great business decision.
Ending: The film shifts suddenly and then there isn’t given nearly enough time for the new direction “American Gangster” takes.
Random Thoughts: Besides Washington and Crowe, there is a good performance from Josh Brolin as a dirty cop. The other cast members are wasted, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common given nothing to do.
Rewatchability: There are definite moments of the film that are worth sitting through again, but I will save this for cable since it clocks in at more than two and a half hours long.
OVERALL I could see a teenager seeing this film and falling in love. But the only reason to adore this film is if you haven’t seen “Godfather,” “Scarface” and “Goodfellas.” “American Gangster” feels familiar, even Washington’s performance of real-life Frank Lucas feels like something we’ve seen before. Crowe adds a quality performance, but in almost all aspects “Gangster” is choosing style over substance.
Overall Grade: 7