Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Ruby Dee
There's something intriguing even just within the concept of casting Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington in Ridley Scott's latest film, the crime drama "American Gangster."
There's Denzel. In Hollywood and beyond, he's recognized as the universal good guy whose class and dignity is constantly on display. However, in "American Gangster," he portrays Frank Lucas, an NYC drug kingpin in the Vietnam-era 1970's whose moral sensibilities were mostly wrapped around a cold-blooded sense of business ethics and an unquenchable thirst for the power that success brings.
Then, there's Russell. In Hollywood and beyond, he's recognized as a fiesty, volatile and yet immensely talented actor whose had more than one well publicized scrape with the law even after becoming a family man. Here, however, Crowe is Richie, an honest cop who finds a million bucks and actually turns it in. Richie exudes business ethics of a different, yet equally dominant kind.
Ridley Scott, at first thought an odd choice to direct such a film, manages to blend these two stories together into an intriguing dual storyline courtesy of screenwriter Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List" and "Gangs of New York").
While "American Gangster" doesn't quite unfold as the masterpiece it so wants to be, Scott has fashioned a compelling and stylish crime drama that rests almost squarely upon the shoulders of its more than capable stars.
Denzel Washington, whose last turn as a baddie garnered him an Oscar for "Training Day," gives a more refined performance here as Lucas. Lucas turns the drug industry into a family business, employing all of his brothers and mentoring them with the knowledge that the strongest man in the room is the quietest.
Lucas is aware that the flashier he is, the more likely he is to be discovered and, in fact, it is sole indiscretion of this principle that leads to his identity being uncovered.
Lucas may be quiet, but his actions speak louder than words. Lucas is a killer with a propensity for particularly dramatic killings, and he takes a personal trip to Thailand to score cheaper heroin and cut out the middle man. Lucas, practically alone, invades New York City with a cheaper yet more lethal heroin that sells for less and leaves corpses in its wake.
Lucas in other words, is a bad-ass drug dealer with a businessman's I.Q. While Washington is a study in refined intensity as Lucas, it has been well publicized that Lucas, in real life, was more boastful of his killings and, despite his quiet nature, quite a bit more aggressive than is brought to life onscreen. Yet, much of this disparity seems more a product of Zaillian's script than Washington's performance and it remains utterly astounding how much Washington can simmer without ever saying a word.
On a side note, this critic's ongoing "Denzel Point Watch" noticed that in this film Denzel, once again, utilizes his famous finger-pointing gesture that has become a trademark of his performances.
While Crowe's Richie feels like less of a stretch, nonetheless it is a respectable performance by Crowe and a nice balance to that of Washington. Richie is your stereotypical good-guy cop with an ex-wife (Carla Gugino), a kid and a streak of honesty that has made him subject to ridicule even by his professional peers. He, like Frank, wants a better life and studies law at night.
With the exception of one scene, Washington and Crowe are not seen together until the film's climactic moments. Yet, largely due to the extensive character development of both men, it all seems to make their inevitable meeting that much more palpable.
Each lead's performance is supported nicely by the players in the world around them. As Frank's siblings, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Common, Albert Jones, Warner Miller and J. Kyle Manzay all shine, while T.I. and Malcolm Goodwin offer strong performances as his cousins who join the fold. As his mother, whom he moves into a Southern mansion, Ruby Dee offers insights into the complex man that Frank has become.
Richie, on the other hand, seems mostly surrounded by doubters and naysayers. Not just his wife, but Det. Trupo (Josh Brolin, a corrupt cop who takes as much joy in humiliating Richie as he does screwing with the bad guy.
While "American Gangster" runs 157 minutes, its compelling characters, washed out cinematography and solid pacing seldom leave a slow spot and, even at over 2 1/2 hours, "American Gangster" leaves you wanting more time with these men as their lives unfold.
"American Gangster" is a modestly flawed yet consistently entertaining crime drama featuring strong performances by Washington and Crowe, excellent cinematography from Harris Savides and a complementary soundtrack that bridges scenes nicely.
While "American Gangster" is unlikely to garner much in the way of Oscar attention, the winning combination of Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington and Ridley Scott makes "American Gangster" a film to watch.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic