American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)
Compared to the enthralling experience of viewing recently released culture-specific mob movies like Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006), a remake of a popular Hong Kong movie set in Irish-dominated Boston which in my opinion surpasses the original, James Gray's We Own the Night (2007), a riveting reworking of a biblical parable set deep in the Eastern European mob scene of 80's Gotham, and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007), an auteur-powered contemplation on identity in Russian mafia-infested London, watching American Gangster, this Ridley Scott-directed fictionalized account of the rise and fall of notorious African-American drug lord Frank Lucas, is such a lugubrious chore. Clocking at a hefty 157 minutes, the movie has the typical Oscar-whoring and self-important pomp of a Brian Glazer-production (think sugar-coated gargantuan productions like A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, 2005) and The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006)) which would most likely divide viewers to those who are willing to give in to the crass Hollywood-ization of a historical figure and those who are just sick of the same tired although glittered routine, repeated and re-repeated year after year.
It helps that Scott is actually a competent director, with a convincing eye for detail. Under his helm, Vietnam War-era New York City with its overpopulated housing projects and streets crowded with discontent derelicts and junkies felt like the chaotic haven that is ripe for Frank Lucas' enterprising endeavor. New York is aesthetically grimy and gloomy with adequate references to the sounds and fashion of that era and its culture, with the newly-wealthy thugs storming in and out of jazz clubs wearing vivacious outfits on their bodies and scantily-clad femmes on their limbs. However, beyond this overproduction mounted to keep the mob tale consistently placed within its proper historical perspective is virtually nothing. American Gangster moves like a lecture on that obscure and possibly forgotten moment of American history, with its lecturer persisting on telling the most insignificant of details to utmost perfection but nevertheless fails to add anything new to the discourse.
As Frank Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the role with his typical suave and charm. While this very agreeable performance by Washington could have been adequate considering that Lucas has Harlem under his control by sheer charisma and lured Miss Puerto Rico into marrying him, it lacks the hidden or apparent wickedness (which Jack Nicholson had tons of in The Departed, but is sufficiently covered by both Moni Moshonov or Armin Mueller-Stahl of We Own the Night and Eastern Promises respectively) that would have made his unscrupulous rise to the top with several murders and other criminal activities on the side entirely believable. It is unfair to put the blame to hardworking Washington as Frank Lucas seems to have been written (by screenwriter Steve Zaillian) exactly the way he portrays him, a persistent gangster with a sure heart still tucked somewhere beneath all the unlawful acts and misdeeds. For some, it is an adequate if not glorious attempt by the filmmakers to give the notorious drug lord a dose of humanity. It probably is a step away from the mob lord caricature that has been inherited since The Godfather days. For me however, it is nothing short of insipid: confusing humanity with lily livered hold on ideals and morals and exchanging underworld viciousness with gentlemanly gestures and an entrepreneur-like grasp of basic economics.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of American Gangster is to delegate a chunk of the Frank Lucas storyline on the bravura efforts of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), detective made notorious by his surrendering nearly a million dollars of unmarked bills to his superiors and would later on be instrumental in the capture of Frank. Crowe, I think, gives the role enough justice. It's an unglamorous role, of a New Jersey cop nearing the unsavory twilight of a divorce while solving the case of his career in an unkempt office with a crew of determined yet unsightly men, and Crowe manages to keep his performance within the bounds of what is required of him. My problem lies in the fact that the alloted attention given to Richie is not commensurate to what he represents in the picture. He is merely a clever plot device, a character whose story's existence in the movie is to merely parallel that of Frank's. Other than that fact, he is merely another golden-hearted copper doing the right thing whose private life is unfortunately uncooperative (and compared to the coppers of We Own the Night who are balancing duty, family and love, Richie's fear of public speaking and risk of losing his family seem utterly unfit for cinema).
There is something about the story of an African-American gangster making it to the top at a time when the higher echelons of the crime scene seem reserved for White Americans that will make you stop and think. The undercurrents of the movie's thematic course seems to envelope the idea that the persevering efforts of American civil rights heroes are not reserved wholly for the virtuous nationalists but also those who subsist in leeching off the misfortune of a nation at war for their own personal gain. However, American Gangster is too busy storytelling and lecturing to convince me of these novel merits. Moreover, stories like American Gangster have been made over the years with more creativity and originality and less of the stuffiness this film seems bent on exuding. Had this film been made decades ago or had it been crafted with a clearer directive without the unnecessary plotlines, I would have brushed off my complaints and considered it a worthwhile achievement. But since it wasn't, I'll just add this to my growing list of cinematic letdowns.
This review is also published in The Oblation.