American Gangster wanted to be a masterpiece so bad there was almost no way it was going to get the job done. And sure enough, it just kind of lies there, like an embalmed corpse. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, two of our most implosive actors, star in this crime epic set in New York City during the Vietnam War, when the heroin trade got a shot in the arm from the poppy fields of Southeast Asia. And we wait and wait for the showdown between Washington's Frank Lucas, the real-life drug lord who ran Harlem like his very own lemonade stand, and Crowe's Richie Roberts, the real-life cop who brought him down. But the movie keeps them apart until the very end. And even then, the encounter doesn't add up to much.
Based on a New York magazine profile called "The Return of Superfly," American Gangster puts a lot of Big Ideas into play - that the drug business was the only way for African Americans to express their entrepreneurial spirit back in the day, that the system was so corrupt you couldn't tell who was on which side of the law, and that the war was part of the hallucinatory haze the country was drifting in. Lucas made his fortune the old-fashioned way: by building a better mousetrap. Bypassing the Italian mafia, he imported crystal-pure heroin directly, sometimes stashed in the coffins of soldiers bound for the States in military-transport planes. In other words, he was an innovator, but he was also a psycho, capable of murdering someone without blinking an eye.
Everybody liked him, though, even judges. And Washington has no trouble playing likable. But the psychotic violence seems tacked on, not integrated into the character, as it was in, say, Tony Soprano. And we don't know much more about Lucas at the end than we did at the beginning. Likewise, Crowe's Roberts does the Serpico thing, but we never get a sense of why he stays clean while the rest of the force wallows in mud. Director Ridley Scott keeps everything dark and moody, the better to court Oscar's favor. But this is no Godfather or The Departed; it's too inert. The scenes don't link up and build. When Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally had their tête-à-tête toward the end of Heat, it meant something. When Washington and Crowe finally have theirs, what it means, thank God, is that the movie's almost over.