Impure Magic in Thug's Tale
America has a long tradition of compelling real-life criminals and a long line of exceptional movies about them. Heroin kingpin Frank Lucas may qualify but American Gangster can't be added to the list. Too low-key to seize hold of the imagination, Ridley Scott's smack saga charting Lucas' rise and fall is divided against itself, stylistically and story-wise.
Denzel Washington portrays Lucas, whose Horatio Alger tale we join in 1968 when he quietly succeeds his mentor Bumpy Johnson as the top crime boss of Harlem. Almost immediately, we meet his eventual nemesis, Richie Roberts, an honest, Jewish cop from New Jersey played by another Oscar winner Russell Crowe. Though the fates of these innovative outsiders will become intertwined, the movie about them doesn't take any risks. It's a rather ordinary chronicle about an extraordinarily enterprising crook and a clean, dedicated cop.
Lucas disrupts the natural order of New York's, mafia-dominated crime world using cutting-edge branding and marketing. He also has the best product after traveling to the jungles of Southeast Asia and tapping into a supply of pure-grade heroin that he's able to smuggle on U.S. military transports. (Among the more interesting motifs: the drug epidemic that ensued was the minority draft inductee's revenge on a system that sent him to fight and die in Vietnam.) Dubbed "Blue Magic," it allows him to corner the heroin market and take control Manhattan between 110 and 155th streets. Lucas preaches honesty and hard work to associates, including his five brothers, but is a ruthless killer when necessary. After achieving fabulous success, his downfall begins when he starts to forget his own philosophy: "The loudest man in the room is the weakest man in the room."
For his part, Roberts -- an ambitious detective from across the Hudson in Essex County, New Jersey -- has to face down the corrupt police of the era, entrenched and indistinguishable from the hoodlums. An interloper, he is shunned after turning in unmarked drug money and is recruited by the feds to form a unit targeting major drug syndicates. A long time passes before he realizes Lucas is at the top of the food chain and even more until he can build a case against him. A major conceit of the movie is that rather than adversaries, they are really two peas in a pod -- emblematic of racial, political and societal changes of the period. Fair enough. As it turns out, however, not the stuff of myth or movie legend.
The biggest knock on American Gangster is that director Scott and his team exhibit little instinctual feel for the milieu. In addition to many obvious choices and a lack of subtext in Steve Zallian's script, there's an overall dearth of style. Not being flashy is a cornerstone of Lucas' businesslike approach -- but the production design is unconvincing and doesn't draw you in.
For all its determination to be understated, the film is punctuated by obvious moments. The theme of a black man making good and conquering the system is underlined by two scenes that mimic Norman Rockwell's famous painting of a family gathered around the table at Thanksgiving. Quoting it once won't suffice. Another blatant gesture comes when a racist attorney overseeing his investigation chews out Roberts, distilling all the prejudice that he and Lucas both faced. And the climactic scene in which Lucas is arrested outside his church is accompanied by the singing of the Gospel staple "Amazing Grace." Any intended irony or heroism gets drowned out by cliché.
It's often not clear whether American Gangster is refusing to pander to race or is being racist, prompting the question whether it's a story a white director, and one who’s not American to boot, is best suited to tell. Washington and Crowe's workmanlike performances match the movie as a whole: better than passable, yet nothing approximating inspired. Being patient is one of Lucas' axioms and moviegoers who exhibit it during the movie's long runtime won't be rewarded with a startling revelation. Granted, it's also unlikely they'll feel ripped-off.
(Released by Universal and rated "R" for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.)