After two Oscars and five nominations, Denzel Washington’s reputation as an A-list superstar is solidified. Coupled with fellow Oscar winner, Russell Crowe, the two acting titans take on the story of one of New York’s most unknown drug kingpins, Frank Lucas in the good but not great crime film, “American Gangster.
In 1968 Harlem, the Vietnam War is raging and scores of heroin-addicted soldiers are crowding the streets of New York. With most of heroin on the street dilluted and weak, its getting more difficult for a gangster to make a profit. The only way to succeed on these streets is to have a plan and a vision and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) has both.
Knowing that a good product is the key to long-term success, Lucas comes up with a scheme using a family member over in Vietnam to buy pure heroin directly from an source in Southeast Asia. Armed with top-notch product that he names “Blue Magic,” and selling it at half the price of his competitors, Lucas begins to make money and draw some unwelcome attention.
Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is one of a few honest detectives working in the corrupt NYPD where almost every cop is on the take. After discovering almost a million dollars and turning it in, Roberts becomes an outcast and a symbol of ridicule in his department. His honesty get him promoted to a Special Federal unit with an assignment to go after big-money dealers and no dealer is as large as the unassuming Lucas. While Roberts is assembling his team of federal agents who will assist in hunting down drug kingpins, Lucas brings in his family to help him expand his growing trade. The two men are headed on a collision course that will pit each against the other.
While Robert’s professional life is going well, his personal life is falling apart. His passion for work and his womanizing cause him to lose his wife and child. Lucas, who is only interested in work, falls in love and marries a beautiful Puerto Rican woman with hopes of beginning a family. With everything going well for both men, it is a simple act committed by Lucas that gets him on everyone’s radar and almost makes him resentful of the woman he loves.
“American Gangster” fancies itself as a 2007 versison of “Heat.” In that film where a determined federal agent (Al Pacino) tracks a master thief (Robert DeNiro), director Ridley Scott uses the same technique in this film. While Pacino had Bubba Gump (Mykelti Williamson), Roberts has the RZA. DeNiro had Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore, Washington has Chiwetel Ejiofor, Common and T.I. Even Cuba Gooding, Jr. is solid in a few scenes as Lucas’ rival, Nicky Barnes. What separates the two films is the script for “AG” spends far too much time setting up the story rather than just letting it evolve. The film stretches almost to the point of bursting before Scott hurriedly ends the film.
Washington gives a solid performance that clearly would have been more appreciated earlier in his career. It almost seems that his screen persona and ultimate likeability sometimes works against him. He plays Lucas almost down the middle not committing to being neither too good or bad, which makes it hard for his character to have a strong identity. Aside from some factual inaccuracies, “American Gangster” is a by-the-book crime movie where good triumphs over evil. While the film’s greatest asset is its two stars, it’s slow pacing and 157 minute running time makes for a over ambitious crime-story. American Gangster has too much setup and not enough of Washington and Crowe and those factors together make this wannabe “Heat” just lukewarm.