Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Carla Gugino, Josh Brolin
Watch American Gangster online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Years before The Martian and Alien: Covenant, American Gangster saw Ridley Scott back at the helm after a couple of critical flops (remember A Good Year?). Telling the true story of two hard-working men, this charts the rise of 70s gangster Frank Lucas (Washington), who elevates himself to the head of the heroin circuit when his mentor Bumpy Johnson passes away. But this is also the tale of true blue cop Richie Roberts (Crowe); honest, divorced and training to be a lawyer, he is determined to bring down the drug lord.
Two antagonists, both alike in dignity, and herein lies the problem – whom do we identify with? Ridley’s emphatic answer is ‘both’. And so unfolds a bizarre dichotomy as we see two stars in two contrasting narratives: Crowe does Serpico; Washington, Scarface. Both actors are on top form, furrowing their brows and gritting their teeth, as they plough through the drawn-out script. When they finally meet, the celluloid crackles with chemistry. The screen takes two hours to light up, though, leaving the audience to twiddle their thumbs, trying to provide some kindling.
The individual plots are engrossing; see Frank buy drugs, see him smuggle them in military coffins. Tut tut, naughty Frank. But he’s not all bad. Indeed, meeting the gangster’s mother is a neat way to develop character. Alongside Crowe and Washington, Ruby Dee is a burst of sunshine as the charming Mama Lucas: “Frank, don’t you kill no people! Frank, eat your vegetables!”
On Crowe’s side, the custody-grabbing wife (Gugino) is given short shrift, and so the entertaining support comes from Richie’s corrupt counterpart, Detective Trupo (Brolin). Swaggering around sporting a leather jacket and moustache, he sneers as he sneaks money under the proverbial table. You know he’s going to get his.
Scott cuts between the two strands to construct some kind of connection. The antagonists occasionally appear near each other, but the segments never quite gel together. When this fails, Scott wheels in the traditional genre staples; prayers in church, attacks in the street; we even get a bad impression of the archetypal mafia boss halfway through. An unconvincing hybrid of De Niro and Pacino, his uneven impersonation sums up this flawed piece. It’s no easy feat to make a film of two halves; Michael Mann’s Heat was a well-baked masterpiece. Scorsese’s The Departed was a scorcher. At times, Ridley’s earnest emulation is a soggy crisp.
American Gangster is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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