Criminals, cops, criminal cops. The three often exist in the same neighborhood. New York in the early 1970s was rife with organized crime, a bunch of corrupt cops and a few cops who were concerned more about “right” and “wrong” than taking bribes so drug kingpins can build their empire. Ridley Scott’s American Gangster attempts to dig into all three of those elements of the urban landscape from this time and is successful only part of the time.
American Gangster is split evenly in its story in the rise of Frank Lucas, a blossoming Harlem drug overlord who uses his connection of pure heroin to build a narcotics wonderland for making money. On the flipside we get Jersey cop Richie Roberts, his bulldog pursuit of criminals and smashing the drug syndicate. In a lot of crime films, you can’t have one without having the other. Too bad only one of these I found remotely interesting.
First let me get to the cops, the good part of the American Gangster. Russell Crowe plays Roberts, a newly separated father who is so honest he and a partner return one million in unmarked cash to the stunned believe of anyone he comes in contact with. Roberts assembles a motley group of NJ cops who are as dogged as him and don’t care about money as much as they care about making arrests.
One thing that made this the interesting aspect of the film is that Roberts is an actual character, with depth involving both flaws and attributes. Lucas on the other hand, played by Denzel Washington, is such a thinly constructed character that Washington pretty much just gives a performance that he can do in his sleep. Lucas was not interesting to me at all. Not his rise in crime, not the way he procures his drug supply, not the way he dealt with rivals in the Italian mafia, not the way he romances the woman in his life. I was completely surprised at just how bland Washington and this side of the story was.
Every time the film flipped back to the “crime” side versus the “cops” side I felt disappointed, as this was not the aspect in the story I cared about following. I wanted to see the cops in their tiny room as they piece the story together to try to bring down Lucas’ gang while also fending off a group of corrupt NYC cops.
American Gangster has a great cast from the two leads to an assortment of character actor types who have donned ‘70s attire, mustaches and revel in the time period. John Hawkes (Deadwood) and Josh Brolin are two that really stood out from the group.
I have read that Brolin was making a serious comeback this year with a spate of visible, vivid performances (Planet Terror was early in the year and No Country For Old Men is soon) and it was no lie. He’s a corrupt cop in American Gangster and is so full of swagger and bad-ass intensity, I wanted to see him a lot more in this. I haven’t seen him in something I remembered him in since he was licking Patricia Arquette’s armpit in Flirting With Disaster in 1996! He’s a frontrunner for an Android award in the Comeback of the Year category.
American Gangster is a solid film full of good actors and crisp directing but the story is only half interesting to me. The cop stuff was interesting. The crime aspects were just too thin, full of characters with no depth and nuance, and even Washington, one of the great American actors, struggled to give the character any kind of memorable qualities.