Ridley Scott’s attempt at the slick gangster epic at times feels like a rip straight from a page of Martin Scorsese’s own handbook, complete with brisk editing and a fuel-injected soundtrack of contemporary tunes. Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half hours American Gangster, based on a true story, chronicles the rise of drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the honest cop driven to stop him. Although Scott may be guilty of once again grasping beyond his reach it’s hard to deny the filmmaking bravura, the combination of technicality and artistry, on display here.
In a brilliant opening scene, in which Frank Lucas casually lights a victim on fire and shoots him multiple times, Scott establishes Washington’s Frank as a cold, calculating, unflinching killer. It’s a superb example of effective violence, utilizing the gruesome scene to resonate with the viewer and simultaneously build character. Lucas is the classic “gangster with a code” character, embodying the Robin Hood persona for his Harlem neighborhood. Scott never glamorizes Frank Lucas, however, injecting numerous scenes of Lucas’ product (“Blue Magic”) at work on its customers, Harris Savides’ evocative smoky photography capturing overdoses in disgusting grimy bathrooms to remind us throughout who Frank is.
Scott furthers the theme of moral ambiguities (alongside American Dream deconstructions) through the character of Richie Roberts, the one honest detective in a city of crooked cops. Russell Crowe feels just right for the character, imbuing him with a spirit that is both downtrodden and driven, and Scott deftly shows the man’s darker side to mirror the blatant crime of Lucas.
Both lead performances are suberb, with Crowe’s nuance and Washington’s staggering presence, but many minor roles feel undercooked. As Frank invites his family into business with him, building an empire akin to that of a Sicilian Mafia, a few brothers are given lines of dialogue, feeble attempts at character development, but many are disregarded completely. With such a strong cast (including Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, and Chiwetel Ejiofor) it would have been nice to see more balanced character emphasis. The film is also so plot heavy, with Scott weaving an effective slow-burning thriller, that it feels slightly off in terms of pacing, jumping forward from scene to scene in an unnatural manner.
All in all, Ridley Scott delivers. It’s no secret he’s a “hit and miss” director (my opinion of last year’s Exodus has weakened considerably) but his ambition always shines. Here, despite his ambition slightly outreaching his grasp, he hits his mark. His trademark attention to detail (displayed through stunning period production design) is captured by Savides’ gorgeous cinematography and he crafts the film into a thrillingly explosive crime epic. There are echoes of Martin Scorsese in the film, in the electric editing, in the themes, in the music choices, but Ridley Scott still manages to craft American Gangster into a unique experience, deftly handling morally ambiguous characters amidst a propelling plot-driven thriller. One of the director’s better films.