If anybody remembers the film New Jack City (1991) starring Wesley Snipes and Ice-T, then you'll see that this new movie is very much like that. Only New Jack City was a billion times better.
Universal, the movie studio behind this new release, spent $100 million on this picture, and in my mind, it wasted its money. The two stars, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, wasted their talent. Not that I blame them! They're good actors. No, here I fault the writer Steve Zaillian and the director Ridley Scott, two men who in the end wasted the audience's time.
AMERICAN GANGSTER, or in this case the African-American Gangster, is the true story of Frank Lucas, a black drug lord who rose to power in Harlem back in the late 1960s and early 70s. He manipulated military relations during the Vietnam War to smuggle heroin out of Thailand, an interesting twist that's glanced over. He colluded with corrupt cops and prided himself on being a ghetto Robin Hood, another piece of the story that's also not given much weight.
At the movie's end, Denzel's character Frank Lucas says, he took care of Harlem, so Harlem will take care of him. That's when I cocked my head and thought, "You didn't take care of Harlem."
Out of this nearly three-hour long film, there's only one 10-second shot from a distance of Frank handing out turkeys and ham to people on the streets. But all the rest of the movie is people dying because they're shooting up Frank's drugs or Frank is just straight shooting them dead. More people were killed because of Frank than helped, so how is Harlem going to help you?
At least, in New Jack City, the whole ghetto Robin Hood thing was played up more. In that movie, you do see those two sides, so that there is a counterpoint to Wesley Snipes' megalomaniacal character named Nino Brown. Here, Denzel Washington's Frank Lucas is merely a smooth, smiling devil that really has no other side, at least not one that we experience in much detail.
He grins at a pretty Puerto Rican girl. The next scene they're married. There's barely any interaction between the two. We don't really get to know their relationship and the potential for a deeper connection with Lucas is wasted.
Unlike Nino Brown, Frank Lucas does walk out of prison at the end of the film a free man after serving a short sentence. If you haven't seen the film, I won't tell you how a drug-dealing murderer walks free. But, the very last shot is Frank leaving jail and you see a look on his face that's maybe guilt or remorse or perhaps some kind of regret. Denzel is a great actor but even he couldn't sell me on that one. If that was supposed to be that emotion, there's no way I bought it.
One of the reasons is because of bad writing and direction of this movie. There comes a point where the actions of Denzel's character become secondary and the movie is thrust upon Russell Crowe. The story then really becomes all about Crowe's character Ritchie Roberts, the Jersey cop studying to be a lawyer who starts on the trail of arresting Lucas.
I understand when you have two big stars in a movie where they both have leading roles like in Michael Mann's Heat, how you want to give both stars equal time and tell both their characters' stories, but it really has to be balanced carefully or you run the risk of sacrificing one for the other, which I think happens here.
Writer Steve Zaillian and director Ridley Scott focus their attention on Crowe's character in a way that you end up understanding his Ritchie Roberts more than Washington's Frank Lucas, when you as an audience member want to know Frank Lucas more. For example, you come to see the deeper issues between Roberts and his wife, or you come to feel the pressures Roberts faces with his work. With Lucas, everything you see is mostly superficial and feels mostly empty or cold. Perhaps this was done intentionally, but I didn't like it.
In New Jack City, the drug lord has his brother, as his right hand man, and you follow the ups and downs of their relationship and, by the end, it seems like you've lived through a real brotherhood. Here, Lucas, similarly has his brother, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (who co-starred with Denzel in last year's Inside Man), as his right hand man, but the relationship is displayed so poorly.
There's one scene where Lucas chews out his brother for dressing too flashy and drawing attention to himself. Lucas calls his brother a wannabe Superfly and that vain criticism is really the extent of the relationship you see.
Ironically, Lucas criticizes his brother for something that in pretty much the next scene, Lucas commits himself, which results in the police focusing their investigation on him. It's an interesting juxtaposition that I wish the filmmakers would have pointed out, but again an interesting nugget is glanced over by the filmmakers.
In the end, it left me feeling like I needed more info on who Lucas was and how he came to be who he was, which they don't do enough of here. The only other scenes with Lucas and his family are more superficial dinner or party scenes that don't really grant us insight on who Lucas was or what made him tick.
There's one brief scene with Lucas' mother, played by Oscar-nominee Ruby Dee, but even then you're offered no answers. Like, how could Lucas buy his mother a huge house and have all these things and she not question before the police raid where the money came from? What happened in his youth to make him turn out this way? I just didn't get Denzel's character.
There have been some who have compared this film to Serpico and Scarface, not just because of its similar subject matter, but also because of its intense attention to art design, almost perfectly recreating the look of a 1970s film (the poster for this film and Scarface even look the same), but the only problem is Al Pacino in those two movies was allowed the breath to really dig into his characters. Here, Denzel isn't given that same breath. Even in a nearly three-hour movie, it's more like a gasp.
One Star out of Five.
Rated R for violence, drug content and sexuality.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 37 mins.
DVD includes an extra 19 mins of unrated footage.