American Gangster arrives in cinemas feted as a proper old crime epic, a throwback to “Goodfellas”, to “Scarface”, to “The Godfather”. What could be better than two hours and forty minutes of narcs and kneecapping, especially when in such capable hands as Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott? Well…
Washington plays the titular gangster Frank Lucas, a real-life Harlem kingpin who hits on the boffo idea of buying heroin straight from the growers, an early proponent of the Fairtrade movement. In fact… a bold, original idea? Stacks of money? Dark-suited Mafioso-types? Where have I seen that before?
Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the detective who uncovers Lucas’s scheme, principally by going to the Ali/Frazier fight and seeing who is in the front row. Roberts spends the next hour and a half trying to catch Lucas with his fingers in the cookie jar, before Lucas discovers (SPOILER ALERT!) that crime doesn’t pay. Crowe is in schlub mode here – an early scene of him working out, doing some benchpresses, and sculpting his guns, doesn’t help to distract us from the floppiness of his hair and – later – his breathless panting after going up some stairs. It was genuinely weird to come back from the cinema and see “Gladiator” on the TV, with a lithe Crowe shanking some hapless Roman in the guts, and equate it with sad-sack Crowe making a crisp sandwich in “American Gangster”.
To be fair, the acting in this is pretty great. Lucas is depicted as still and quiet where his contemporaries are brash, and Washington turns in his usual exemplary display of confidence, vulnerability, charm, and moments of pause. Crowe’s character too is quiet, understated, occasionally brought out into righteous anger. How odd that the two main characters in this grandiose-seeming film are probably the two most understated, which makes their eventual confrontation and collaboration seem fitting and right. They’re portrayed as similar people – both with great integrity, both with a very American drive for work, both with a robust set of principles. However, I prefer Washington as a hero – there’s a real kindness in his eyes that even in his uberbastard mode in this and “Training Day” lets us know that everything’s going to be okay – and never quite bought into him being the type to commit the sporadic careless violence that Frank commits.
The cast is filled out with some neat little performances – Josh Brolin as the corrupt cop is flamboyantly cruel, shooting dogs and wearing a mean moustache. It was great to see the awesome John Hawkes from “Me You And Everyone We Know” in a key role, and there are some good rap-related roles for the RZA, T.I. and especially Common, who puts in a warm and engaging performance in a very short time. (I wonder if Ridley Scott knew about the anachronistic nature of the RZA’s Wu tattoo. Or tatt-Wu. Maybe the RZA wouldn’t let them put make-up over it.)
Less impressive, unfortunately, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I ordinarily think is bloody marvellous. In this, he didn’t really have much to do, and in a long-shot of the Lucas brothers walking down the street, his confidence was let down by his English shoulders (spot the body posture geek).
The less said about Cuba Gooding Jr the better.
Despite the largely good performances, the film never quite earns its epicness. (Epicity?) The film walks some pretty well-trodden ground, and it does so timidly – never quite wanting to grandstand as spectacularly as “Scarface”, and demurely slinking around the glamour that the life has afforded Lucas. You sense that his family is what drives him to continue, and it is only near the end with events slipping out of his control that he starts believing his own hype and really becomes a monster of greed. What we are left with is the straight guy of crime, when we probably really want to see the hilarious excess of ‘Mr Untouchable’ Nicky Barnes. (Although preferably not played by Cuba Gooding Jr.)
The violence is shocking, yet very sporadic, but still provoked enthusiastic wincing from our audience. The film is long on quiet character moments and short on action; even the drive-by shooting is quite matter-of-fact. Probably the best influence of Ridley Scott is evoking the environment of Harlem in the early ’70s, with rundown Projects contrasted with the 1970s version of high-class. “That’s alpaca!” says Washington of a blood-soaked rug, “Don’t rub it! Dab it!”
So, a pretty run of the mill gangster movie, with little to recommend it above re-watching “Scarface” than Washington’s performance. Perhaps the most confusing element of the whole thing is that Jay-Z was so inspired by the movie that he recorded a whole album based on both the film and its parallels in his own life. As another drug-dealer-turned-business-man, you could perhaps see where Jay-Z was going, but where Jay’s own glittering career signified a new business world where African-Americans could be dominant, the film ends with Lucas as an outcast from the criminal community, principally because his intuition and, to some extent, ethnic origins had alienated him from the Italians who had supported his dealings, upsetting the status quo. The film’s final shot sees Washington released from prison in 1991, alone and vulnerable in a new world, soundtracked not by “Across 110th Street”, but by Public Enemy. So why was Jay-Z so inspired? Perhaps it is that Jay-Z’s business model went from crime to using his talent as a springboard into legitimate business, and Lucas’s tale suggests how different things could have ended up for the Roc-A-Fella businessman – short-lived glamour, followed by punishment. Lucas’s Gangster is American because of initiative and ambition, because of principles and respect, but in latter-day America, you either (to paraphrase another rapper/businessman) get rich or die trying.