When American Gangster was announced, with actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, it seemed like a can't miss project.
It wasn't the fault of the cast. Denzel has two Oscars and Ridley Scott directed Crowe to his Oscar-winning performance in Gladiator. Crowe's performances in A Beautiful Mind and The Insider perhaps were even better. But plans are not done deals.
Despite its acting firepower -- Ruby Dee, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, et al. -- American Gangster has few sparks. It fires several blanks.
It's not a bad film -- it's a solid effort. It seemed as though it might contend for best picture of the year, but it's nowhere near top ten. It's workman-like and generic.
Basically American Gangster is two movies. One is about the rise of Frank Lucas (Washington), an African-American who becomes a drug kingpin in Harlem. The other is about Richie Roberts (Crowe), a cop turned federal investigator who focuses on drugs and corrupt New York cops.
One of the major problems is that in this lengthy 157 minute movie, Denzel and Russell appear together for only about ten minutes. And their mutual appearance occurs about two hours and twenty minutes into the movie. It's not enough, not nearly enough.
Director Scott and writer Steve Zaillian almost seem to have taken their actors for granted. They don't give them challenging scenes.
The main characters don't have much dimension. We find out late in the movie that Richie is Jewish when someone gives him an ethnic insult.
Richie does wear a Star of David, but a Star of David does not make a characterization. There is little if any sign of ethnicity in Richie's character. In fact, he seems to have walked in from some soap opera.
People might think that because the story is based on actual people (I hate to use the term real people), it limits them. But it doesn't have to. Casino was a very effective fictional account of Lefty Rosenthal, a living person.
In American Gangster writer Zaillian tries to add a little pizazz, by changing the "real" Richie into a womanizer. That's tacky.
Scott and Zaillian seem to concentrate more on the business allegory than on character, but both are thin. As Frank says, the most important things in business are "integrity and hardwork." That might be a good credo for filmmaking.
In American Gangster there are juxtapositions that are supposed to speak volumes. They only speak syllables. While Frank is hosting a lavish family Thanksgiving dinner, Richie is alone eating a sandwich with crushed potato chips. Get it? The gangster is eating high on the turkey; the cop is eating low on the chips. Scenes such as this must have held more promise on the printed page.
There's not a single memorable character in American Gangster. Serpico blows away Richie Roberts. Training Day's Alonzo Harris puts Frank Lewis to shame. Armand Assante is back playing a crime boss for the 1,000th time. Still, it's good to see Ruby Dee, who plays Frank's mother.
Director Ridley Scott seems discombobulated in the crime genre. None of his movies -- from Alien to Kingdom of Heaven -- show that he is adept or inventive in that well-worn genre.
Where are Thelma and Louise (from a movie directed by Scott) when we need them? Instead we get Frank and Richie. Scott and Zaillian have turned two extraordinary actors into run-of-the-mill players. Even a great actor needs a creative script.
American Gangster is no Godfather. It's more a long-winded uncle, who talks a good game, but has difficulty delivering more than shopworn attitude.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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