'American Gangster': Mystery Man, By Kurt Loder

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe give full-blown star performances, but even they can't crack this case.

In Ridley Scott's masterfully crafted new movie, Denzel Washington, playing real-life Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, is so deeply embalmed in dignity that he leaves Russell Crowe, as the detective determined to bring Lucas down, to provide most of the picture's pure crime-flick enjoyment.

When we first see him, in 1968, Lucas is a driver for Harlem mob boss Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams). After Johnson dies of heart attack in an appliance store, where he'd been railing about U.S. retailers buying direct from overseas suppliers and cutting out hard-working American middlemen, Lucas decides to introduce that practice into the drug trade. He flies off to Vietnam, sets up direct connections with Asian suppliers, and begins smuggling huge quantities of pure heroin back to the States concealed in the returning coffins of dead GIs. The New York Mafia, which has run the drug-distribution business up till now, isn't pleased.

Meanwhile, New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Crowe) — a straight arrow so honest he's drawn the displeasure of all the many crooked cops on the scene — is recruited to head up a new Federal anti-drug task force. When he spots a packet of Lucas' product — "Blue Magic," twice as pure as other varieties of heroin on the street, and half the price — he sets out to find its source. The chase is on.

Lucas, with his reverence for family and his penchant for sudden, bloody violence, could be a character out of the "Godfather" movies. ("American Gangster" in fact lifts a couple of sequences from those films virtually intact, including a wrap-up played off against a church service.) We see him bringing his five previously upstanding brothers to New York and slotting them into his dope business (after impressing them by shooting a rival in the head on a busy street in broad daylight), and we wonder, if he loves them all so much, how he could indoctrinate them into such depravity. We see the ravaged addicts on whom his business relies and flourishes, too. But we're also asked to admire Lucas as an innovative businessman with an unbending code of honor. This notion is as bogus here as it's been in many other post-"Godfather" crime sagas (and in the "Godfather" movies themselves). Lucas may wear sleek tailored suits (he deplores the Superfly look, telling one gaudily-attired player, "That's a costume with a big sign on it, says 'Arrest me'"), and he may preside over big, warm family dinners, but the man's a scumbag — no matter how hard the movie tries to sell its ambivalence as a point of view.

Denzel Washington is a hugely charismatic star, but here he's straitjacketed by his character's inscrutable conception, even after he's paired with the sympathetic Puerto Rican beauty queen (Lymari Nadal) who becomes his wife. This leaves Russell Crowe, an equally formidable actor, to effectively run off with the story. We can see Crowe thinking, and feel the inner turmoil that's wrecked his own family life, and we're drawn in by his rich, magnetic baritone. Even for Crowe, however, the picture's conflicted setup is tough going, and he can't push it as far as it would require to qualify as a gangster classic.

The movie was gorgeously shot by Harris Savides ("Zodiac"), and director Scott has captured the urban landscape in which the story is set with a sweeping authenticity, panning down from the pounding El trains into the teeming streets below. If nothing else, "American Gangster" exposes Brian De Palma's "Scarface" — the most wildly popular drug saga among gangster wannabes — as the crude cartoon that it is. Scott's film is a more intelligent production — it's not as witlessly bloody as "Scarface," and it's not burdened with Pacino-style ranting. But it also lacks that picture's unabashed pulp wallop (it could've used a little more of Josh Brolin as Roberts' vile, bad-cop nemesis); and in the end we wonder what we're supposed to be taking away from this morally opaque and ungainly story. Not a lot, unfortunately.

Check out everything we've got on "American Gangster."

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