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American Gangster

A film review by Glenn Kenny, Premiere

American Gangster

USA, 2007
Director Ridley Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, RZA, Ruby Dee, Carla Gugino

It’s a telling irony that one of the more engrossing scenes in this picture is scored to Bobby Womack’s song “Across 110th Street,” which was, of course, the theme music to the 1972 film of the same name. Across 110th Street was a low-budget thriller in the then-disreputable blaxploitation genre, while Gangster is a major Hollywood prestige production that, among other things, proposes to Make Some Statements About Race And Capitalism In America. But with all the means director Ridley Scott and producer Brian Grazer had at hand, they still needed to borrow some voltage.

Based on journalist Mark Jacobson’s account of the rise and fall of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas, American Gangster’s hook is the putative novelty of Lucas’s particularity, e.g., he was the only black, um, entrepreneur to go around the Mafia. Lucas’s innovation was to go direct to the Far East source of the dope and import it via Army planes during the Vietnam War. (Indeed, the war’s end here bids fair to put a big crimp in his business.) Denzel Washington’s portrait of Lucas downplays the criminal’s conceptual audacity in favor of highlighting his meticulous style and his embrace of “American” values, such as they are in his milieu. Frank’s a criminal, but he’s also a businessman, Steve Zaillian’s script is forever reminding you.

He’s also pretty much unknowable, a fact that Washington’s oft-understated performance seems to acknowledge. A bit more transparent is Lucas’s counterpart here, honest cop Richie Roberts (Crowe, whose accent and inflections are all over the place here). The cop’s discovery and pursuit of Lucas has him running afoul of corrupt law-enforcement figures (led by a logy, menacing Brolin) that feed on Lucas and his like. Roberts is a tough slob and a bit of an obsessive.

These are characters you’ve seen and heard before, for the most part, and if you’re a fan of the crime genre, you might get a kick out of spending some time with them. But the new perspective Scott and Zaillian want to bring to this material never gels convincingly, and despite some effective set pieces, a cast of memorable faces and attitudes, and evocative cinematography by Harris Savides, this would-be epic feels tired and rote — that is, until a song like “Across 110th Street” pops up on the soundtrack, reminding at least this viewer of a different movie he’d rather have been watching.