December 22, 2007

MOVIES: American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are talented, charismatic actors. You'd think that pairing them in a crime drama would make for an exciting movie, but American Gangster never gets any higher than craftsmanlike workmanship.

Washington is Frank Lucas, who rules the criminal underworld of Harlem in the late 60s and early 70s. He comes up with a clever scheme to take over the heroin market, which was then controlled by the Mafia, by importing his product directly from the producers in southeast Asia (he smuggles it into the country in the coffins of American soldiers returning from Vietnam). This allows him to offer "a product twice as good for half the price," and before long, he's living in a fabulous mansion and enjoying ringside seats at the Ali-Frazier fight.

Crowe is Richie Roberts, a Boy Scout of a cop (and loathed by his fellow officers for it) who takes a job on a federal drug task force. It takes a while for Richie to realize that Frank is the guy he's after, because none of the cops can quite believe that a black man has beaten the Mafia at its own game.

Both actors are oddly muted here, with their natural charisma turned way down. This makes some sense for Crowe, I suppose, who's playing a schlub from New Jersey, but Frank Lucas really should be a more charming character than Washington gives us; it's a little hard to understand how he inspires such loyalty (or such fear, for that matter, as Washington doesn't really crank up the menace, either). Perhaps director Ridley Scott feared that Washington would, if given free rein, wipe Crowe's low-key performance off the screen; in any event, it's hard to care much about either character.

The supporting cast is uneven. Armand Assante overacts terribly as a Mafia boss trying to make a deal with Frank, but Josh Brolin is effectively sleazy as a corrupt New York cop, and Ruby Dee is quite good as Frank's mother. (The Supporting Actress hype she's getting, though, is overblown; the role is a standard Noble Black Mama part, and while she's good, she's not award-worthy. She's being singled out for praise because (a) she's a lot better than the movie, and (b) she's a good choice for a "Career Achievement/We're Sorry We Never Honored You Before" award.)

Assante aside, there's not really anything that you can point to here and say it's bad or ineffective; but the movie never becomes more than the sum of its competent parts. There's not a single moment that excited me or made me sit up in my seat. It's a disappointing movie.

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