American Gangster is lousy with social context. As that title proclaims, it’s nothing less than a panoramic portrait of a nation disintegrating from moral rot. The movie unfolds in the sixties and seventies in a New York plagued by drug abuse and police corruption, by the trickle-down effects of the Vietnam War, Nixon, racism, and, implicitly, the internal contradictions of capitalism. You could write a thesis on it, and I bet director Ridley Scott, screenwriter Steven Zaillian, and co-producer Nick Pileggi would supply you with sparkling insights. Their ambition is out there. But for all the sprawl, American Gangster feels secondhand. It’s like Scarface drained of blood, at arm’s length from the culture that spawned it.
Denzel Washington has something to do with its muffled impact. The film was inspired by “The Return of Superfly,” a 2000 article in this magazine by Mark Jacobson about the onetime Harlem kingpin and heroin importer Frank Lucas—a flamboyant sociopath doing a postprison impersonation of a regular guy. (For a conversation between Lucas and his former drug-dealing rival Nicky Barnes, click here.) Maybe Washington didn’t want to reinforce the bad old Superfly stereotype. Or maybe he didn’t want to reincarnate his cackling psycho-cop from Training Day. But his Frank is too much in his comfort zone: sleek, self-contained, disdaining flash, lecturing his brother (Chiwetel Ejiofor) that the strongest person in the room is the quietest. The filmmakers don’t whitewash the character, exactly. He blows a rival’s brains out. He brings in heroin from Southeast Asia that’s twice as strong as his competitors’ and sells it so cheaply that the death rate surges. But the charismatic monster of Jacobson’s profile, a man who exults in his scams and brags about his murders, has become so controlled—and domesticated—that even with Washington’s star power, he can’t carry the movie.
To be fair, he doesn’t need to, since half of American Gangster centers on Detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe in a bad seventies haircut, corduroy jackets, and three-piece polyester suits. The role is in Crowe’s comfort zone, too. He gravitates—obviously for reasons of temperament—to monomaniacs, men so consumed that they have no peripheral vision. He’s believable, even with a broad New Jersey accent, but he doesn’t transcend the part—yet another driven cop with a pigsty apartment and an ex-wife (Carla Gugino, squandered) who thinks he can’t be trusted to look after their child. He’s an object of pity, presented as a casualty of this topsy-turvy moral universe: Fellow cops shun him for seizing nearly a million dollars in drug money and not pocketing it.
As in The French Connection, the filmmakers make much of the contrast between the honest detective’s impoverishment and the gangster’s obscene luxury. Frank’s ill-gotten wealth enables him to buy a mansion down South for his sweet, elderly mom (Ruby Dee), and bring his brothers and cousins into the business, and Scott cuts between the family’s warm-hued Thanksgiving dinner and Richie’s lonely sandwich by the kitchen sink in a blue-gray twilight. Later, he cuts from another holiday meal to a dead junkie mother with a toddler wailing beside her. The point is to rub your nose in the culture’s schizophrenia (you can’t accuse the filmmakers of downplaying the ironies), but juxtapositions like that are crude editorials—detached and superior, missing the texture of real life.
Lack of texture matters since the director is attempting to evoke the gritty New York films of the seventies—the sort of hyperrealist urban-jungle films that Scott, with his background in commercials and his cool, aestheticized lighting, helped (along with fellow Brits Adrian Lyne and Scott’s brother, Tony) to make unfashionable. There’s a hunger for that realism now—along with a weird nostalgia for the days when the city was an open sewer but Times Square wasn’t the home of Mickey Mouse and you didn’t need $2,000 a month for a studio in the Village. But Scott’s realism is studied, his sociological points thudding. Every TV features Nixon or Vietnam. Frank’s gangster mentor, Bumpy Johnson, bemoans the closing of mom-and-pop businesses and then drops dead in the lobby of an electronics superstore. The scenes with Josh Brolin—fatted, with a big, ugly mustache—as Trupo, a corrupt detective who shakes down Frank for a cut of his money and also manages to belittle Richie, are Snidely Whiplash numbers. Trupo gives American Gangster a shot of cheap melodrama—he even has Frank’s dog killed. He’s a cynical device to show how Frank and Richie are, on some level, allies against a system that’s bigger than they are.
Crowe and Washington don’t share a scene until the brief last act, a stare-down that’s tautly written and acted. Frank reveals the source of his rage against the white world was the KKK’s murder of a cousin and points out that Italian gangsters were “bleeding Harlem dry since they got off the boat.” Richie works on him to give up all the corrupt cops. A postscript says that when Richie became a defense lawyer, his first client was Frank. Maybe that’s the ultimate—unintentional—sociological statement of American Gangster: That movie stars, whatever their characters’ morality, belong together at the fadeout.