Ridley Scott´s crime epic American Gangster comes so close to becoming a masterpiece that one can almost taste it through the multiple allusions to Scarface, Heat, and other classics.
But director Scott has shaped this true-story tale to the larger-than-life structure of a Hollywood epic; when the reality of the story finally kicks in towards the end, it´s more anticlimactic than one would wish for. That ending: it´s ironic – and all too real – that this is what has become of the titular American Gangster.
Compare it to the essential Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930´s, with Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson meeting their fates in a hail of gunfire. That´s the film that Scott wanted to make here; the reality of the story almost seems to have gotten in the way.
Denzel Washington stars as real-life crimelord Frank Lucas, who starts out in the movie as famed Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson´s driver. When Bumpy dies, Lucas sets out to take over the New York; not by force, as some of his competitors attempt to do, but through smart enterprising – ignoring the fact that he´s a drug lord, most entrepreneurs could learn a lot from Lucas´ story.
On the other side of the coin, we have honest cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) – so honest he turns in a million in found drug money, even through it would´ve been easier for all concerned had he kept it – who vows to bring down the new drug kingpin in Harlem, who´s been offering superior product at discounted prices. The first step is finding him, however; part of Lucas´ strategy is keeping such a low profile that he remains invisible to Roberts and his team for much of the film.
Washington and Crowe are both solid, and respectably understated, in their roles; their characters are somewhat shallowly written, however, and best serve as pawns in the elaborate story – subplots involving Lucas´ wife and family and Roberts´ custody battle are less compelling than the heart of the film.
Josh Brolin nearly steals the show as a corrupt Jersey cop who comes into conflict with both Roberts and Lucas; it´s a bit of a flashy role, yes, but Brolin delivers the sleaze with gusto (as an aside – what an incredible year for Brolin, who has established himself as a star with featured roles in this, No Country for Old Men, In the Valley of Elah, and Grindhouse).
Supporting cast is uniformly excellent, though with such a large collection of actors, few get a chance to shine. Chiwetel Ejiofor, in particular, feels wasted as Lucas´ brother and right-hand man, while more exuberant personalities (Cuba Gooding Jr., Roger Bart) verge on becoming distractions in scene-stealing cameos.
While it´s absolutely compelling for three-fourths of the film, Steven Zallian´s script – or rather, the true story of Frank Lucas – leads director Scott astray, and we´re left with an epic that leaves us wanting. But what an almost – and what a story.
If only Lucas’ tale ended differently, or Zallian and Scott let themselves rewrite history, rather than throwing their final punches with some dreaded end scrawl before the closing credits.