The cast is headlined by two Oscar winners: Denzel Washington as Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe as North Jersey drug cop Richie Roberts.
For many years, Frank has been the driver for mobster Bumpy Johnson. When a heart attack fells Bumpy, Frank uses his contacts and knowledge to carve out a niche in the Harlem drug market. But his circumstances are fragile, with other black mobsters and the Mafia threatening to squeeze him out. To make his position unassailable, Frank executes a bold move - he travels to Bangkok to set up a direct deal with the drug producers, cutting out the middle men. In order to transport the drugs into the United States, he uses the army, which is constantly ferrying men and equipment to Vietnam. Suddenly, Frank has the purest heroin on the streets of New York and he can sell it cheaper than any of his competitors. It doesn't take long before Mafioso Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) is working for him.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Richie has become a pariah for turning in $1 million in unmarked drug money which was designated for cop payoffs. He is transferred to a newly formed narcotics squad and gets to pick his own men. Their goal - take down the highest placed drug lord they can get evidence against, and their sights are eventually trained on Frank. But Richie has problems, both professional and personal. His ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is suing him for custody of his son, he is not well respected by his peers, and his New York City equivalent, Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), is on the take.
Frank's portion of the story is energetic and intense. We are treated to a lot of little details about the drug trade that recall the behind-the-scenes look at gambling offered by Martin Scorsese in Casino. (For example, all the women cutting and packaging the drugs in Frank's "workshop" do so in the nude so they can't steal any to take home.) Frank is a fascinating and charismatic character, in the best tradition of screen mobsters. For the most part, he is gentlemanly and courteous. He loves his wife (Lymari Nadal) and his mother (Ruby Dee). But there are times when he snaps and his dark side shows - as in a scene when he brutally eliminates a rival in broad daylight in the middle of a crowd.
Unfortunately, Richie is rather dull and the segments featuring his story aren't nearly as interesting. It's odd to find such a volatile and forceful actor as Russell Crowe stuck in a low-key performance. There's nothing wrong with Crowe's acting. Like Washington, he's very good. The problem is the character and this aspect of the plot. It's inferior and the film's level of energy declines palpably every time the scene switches from Frank to Richie. These two are set up as rivals, but they never seem equally matched in their chess game.
If there's an acting surprise, it's Josh Brolin, who digs his teeth into the role of Trupo and tears at it with relish. All that's missing is the black hat. Frank is more of an anti-hero than a villain, a self-made man who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps and spreads around the wealth. The movie allows us to sympathize with him while never forgetting what he is. (There's a brilliant sequence that contrasts Frank's cutting of the Thanksgiving turkey with users dying of overdoses on his drugs.) Trupo, on the other hand, is a true bad guy - a blackhearted opportunist with a gun who lords his power over everyone in an era when killing a cop was almost unheard of.
Scott's intention is to build the story to its climax by contrasting Richie and Frank as he brings them into conflict with each other. It doesn't work as well as the director would like because the material is uneven and the conflict lacks potency. There's never a sense that these two are in opposition, at least not until the end. That dulls the film's edge. And it's hard to deny that American Gangster is a better motion picture when it is centered on Frank than on Richie.
While the decision to focus on a black gangster isn't original, the way in which Frank is developed is unique, and that's the primary reason why the film works. Characters whose personalities mix so many contradictory and volatile elements are always the most interesting - that's what has made Michael Corleone one of the all-time best screen gangsters, and there's more than a little of this in Frank. Like in Training Day and Malcolm X, where he portrayed less than perfect individuals, Washington rules the screen. His portrayal is one of many things that elevates this film to the level of being consistently entertaining and occasionally compelling.
© 2007 James Berardinelli