- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
idley Scott must have the patience of a Tibetan monk. I can’t think of another director working today that is capable of casting two powerhouse actors like Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in a film that doesn’t see them sharing a scene until the final minutes. Most directors would re-write a script for the sole purpose of getting as much bang for their buck out of the pairing, but Scott has two things going for him with his latest film, “American Gangster,” that many others don’t. For starters, it plays like two movies in one, with each actor carefully developing his character with little distraction from the other. And second, the gimmick simply isn't necessary. Washington and Crowe are two of the industry’s best actors for a reason, and while it might be fun to watch them play off one another, it doesn't do much for the story.
The year is 1968, and on the streets of Harlem, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III) is king. That is, until the gangster dies of a heart attack in the middle of a discount electronics store, leaving his drug business up for grabs to anyone who deems himself fit. One such man is Frank Lucas (Washington), Bumpy’s former driver who, as a result of spending every waking second with the man, knows all about running a successful business. Unfortunately, the drug business isn’t quite as successful as it sounds when you’re forced to go through a series of middlemen, and so Frank extends the direct-from-the-distributor business approach utilized in every other American market to the drug trade. Striking a deal with a Thai supplier through a cousin in the armed forces, Frank begins transporting pure heroin through the skies in military planes and selling it for half the price (under the name Blue Magic) on the streets. It’s win-win for everybody. Addicts get a better product for a cheaper price, and Frank makes a bigger profit.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bridge, womanizing New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Crowe) is busy dealing with his own problems. His wife (Carla Gugino) is filing for divorce, he’s stressing out over the upcoming bar exam, and no one on the force trusts him after turning in $1 million in unmarked bills recovered during a sting operation. When his partner ODs on a new drug called Blue Magic, however, Richie is recruited to head up a narcotics task force designed to take down the city’s biggest targets. Frank Lucas isn’t even on his radar when he begins the hunt, and why should he be? No one believes that a black man could be his own boss (let alone trump the Italian mafia), but as the pieces fall into place, Richie uncovers the secret to Lucas' empire: the caskets of American soldiers.
For anyone that enjoyed Washington’s villainous turn in “Training Day,” his role as real-life gangster Frank Lucas is one for the ages. Playing him as a gentleman’s gangster, Washington delivers a performance that warrants both sympathy and disgust. Crowe, on the other hand, suffers from playing the less interesting of the two characters. Where Lucas’ family life only adds to the complexity of his business, Robert’s marital struggles feel tacked on – almost as if they were added after Crowe signed on to the project. It certainly helps to even out the workload between the two actors, but I’d rather Scott didn’t try so hard to make the men mirror images of one another. Perhaps more upsetting, however, is the way in which the supporting cast is completely lost in the process. Standout talents like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Josh Brolin are given very little to do, while Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in a role that could have jumpstarted a “Dreamgirls”-like comeback.
The film itself will likely draw comparisons to both “Scarface” and “The Departed,” but it’s more like “Superfly” meets “Serpico” in its depiction of drugs and police corruption in the 70s. It only seems fitting, since the story is not only based on the New York article titled “The Return of Superfly,” but that the crew apparently gave the film that nickname during production. What’s perhaps best about the film, though, is that it doesn’t feel even remotely as long as its 157-minute runtime, and though it likely won’t receive all the Oscar hoopla that many are expecting, “American Gangster” is one of the first films of the year to actually deserve the recognition.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Universal may be hit-and-miss when it comes to their Blu-rays, but “American Gangster” is a virtually bulletproof HD transfer from the original three-disc DVD release. Featuring both the original theatrical cut and a new unrated, extended version showcasing 18 additional minutes of footage, the movie is complemented with a split commentary (meaning they were recorded separately) from director Ridley Scott and writer Steve Zaillian. Unfortunately, the track can only be heard along with the theatrical version, so you don’t get any sort of insight into why the new footage was cut in the first place. Based on the way both Scott and Zaillian discuss the various drafts of the script, however, it clearly had to do with time.
It’s too bad, then, that Universal didn’t include those 18 minutes along with the other deleted scenes. I have to imagine that some people are interested in what was cut, but don’t exactly want to sit though the film’s 176-minute runtime to find out. Still, there are quite a lot of goodies to mine, including a five-part documentary (“Fallen Empire”) that uses interviews with the cast, crew and the real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts to discuss everything from the true story to production on the film. And just in case that wasn’t enough, the three-part featurette “Case Files” continues the making-of blitz with a look at an early script meeting, Scott being educated on proper heroin testing, and a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the climatic takedown sequence. Rounding out the set is a promotional BET special, a “Dateline NBC” interview with Matt Lauer, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, a short featurette discussing the use of rappers in the film (“Hip-Hop Infusion”), and music videos for “Do You Feel Me” and “Blue Magic.”