Sometimes a "slam dunk" isn’t a slam dunk.
Imagine pitching "American Gangster" to producers. We’ve got Ridley Scott ("Gladiator," "Blade Runner") directing a script by Steve Zaillian ("Schindler’s List," "Gangs of New York"), and the movie will star Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. Any sane producer would be coughing up dough faster than you can say "pre-video box office."
Because of a relentless stream of trailers and other types of marketing, the movie will undoubtedly post big ticket sales. But most viewers will likely leave shrugging rather than raving.
In early 1970s New York City, Richie Roberts (Crowe) is a detective so honest his fellow cops treat him like a traitor. He jumps at the chance to get out of the NYPD and head up a new federal narcotics investigation unit. At the same time, Frank Lucas (Washington) is quickly becoming the most powerful drug trafficker on the East Coast. The movie tries to cover a lot of ground within that frame, but in classic dramatic fashion, it all slowly boils down to a showdown between these two men.
"American Gangster" has some fine moments. Roberts and Lucas are both sympathetic characters with major league flaws, and Crowe and Washington capture their complexity. Scott displays his usual prowess with the camera, and the crew re-creates ’70s Manhattan vividly. The supporting cast is also on the money.
But the film takes a fascinating true story and drains it of all originality. We’ve seen all this before, and we’ve seen it done better. The borrowing and stealing from previous movies goes like this.
The movie begins like "Serpico," then it becomes "Blow," then "Superfly" (in fact, "Return of Superfly" was apparently an early title for the film). It then rehashes "New Jack City" and "Heat," then finishes with heaping helpings of "Scarface" and "The Godfather."
The only part of the story that seems fresh comes in the final 15 minutes. But at that point, this movie that has painstakingly shown us the minute details of every character relationship begins to cram years of character development into a few minutes. Even though it pushes three hours running time, I felt like the most interesting material was cut.
To be more specific would ruin the ending, but the big character twist, the coup de grace, the thing that sets this story apart from all others, is summarized by a few sentences given in title cards just before the credits.
I’ve never thought Ridley Scott was as good a storyteller as he is a photographer, and this time he leaves a big fat gap in the plot at the most crucial point in the film.
"American Gangster" presents itself as an epic, Oscar-contending masterpiece and the kind of film that captures a significant chapter in American cultural history.
The title alone brags that this will be the next great gangster movie. Sadly, it never quite lives up to those promises.
It’s a slick, enjoyable crime movie featuring solid acting, but it’s absolutely not the next great American crime saga.