Gangsters of cinema seem to have certain identifiable behaviors: they lecture their underlings on how the business works, show their horrifying authority in a moment of swift violence, feel conflicted when their siblings are given key roles for which they are clearly unfit, and demonstrate considerable charity to the less fortunate, as if an attonement for their multitude of sins. Perhaps real life gangsters also exhibit this behavior (didn't Gotti have a philanthropic streak?). Frank Lucas was a real gangster who became the premier heroin dealer in Harlem in the early 1970s. As played by Denzel Washington in director Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, in him we see the familiar blueprint. His deadly authority is announced in the opening scene, as he cavalierly sets an unidentified man ablaze with no seeming hesitation.
Lucas inherits his position after the death of his mentor, a respected and feared chap named Bumpy Johnson. Bumpy isn't riddled with bullets at an eatery, though. He dies of natural causes, just like Don Corleone (who wasn't real, of course). After this death, the streets of Harlem become overrun with amateurs who frighten tenants out of protection money and sling low grade junk with no sense of pride. Lucas winces as the dealers make their own rules; he instead is a sharp capitalist who, once on top of his game, grows irate when one of his customers dares to dilute the H with fillers and still use the trademarked name ("Blue Magic"). It just ain't professional.
Lucas builds his empire with a clever importation system for the heroin that utilizes American military helicopters as they transport dead soldiers back from Vietnam. War is profitable. Meanwhile, we also get to know Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), apparently the only honest cop in the NYPD. He's so damned honest he actually returns drug money he finds on a bust back to the precinct. No one can understand this, and Roberts finds himself shunned by nearly everyone on the force. No good deed goes unpunished. He also has the usual difficult life real and cinematic cops tend to have: busted-up marriage, disappointed kid, dirty dishes in the sink, a steady diet of Chinese takeout. Richie's a bit more ambitious, though; he's taken the bar exam, hoping to become at least a ham and egger down at City Hall someday.
Richie catches a break when he's recruited to head the Federal Investigation Force of Narcotics. He assembles a rag-tag team of likeminded cops from around New York who focus on the rampant heroin epidemic. Their investigations eventually identify Frank Lucas, and the movie becomes a mano-a-mano contest between him and Roberts. There are the inevitable parallels between the men's lives, which director Scott illustrates with contrasting scenes of their respective domestic lives. We also get the scenes which illustrate my opening remarks, as Lucas coldbloodedly kills a rival in broad daylight in front of Lucas's minions, verbally berates and repeatedly bangs a baby grand piano lid down on a wayward family member who screws up, and also hands out a truckload of frozen turkeys to the needy in Harlem every Thanksgiving, carrying on the tradition of Bumpy before him.
AMERICAN GANGSTER, in other words, is less than original. Every story thread, every detail, has been seen many, many times. It has been said that there are only 100 storylines in Hollywood, but Scott and colleagues do nothing to make these ideas fresh or truly compelling. Even in a true story. It is a pretty good movie, engrossing and entertaining, if long in tooth. It plays like a commedable programmer, designed to be a time killer at home. Barely remembered a week later.
The movie has good performances by the leads and a game supporting cast; Ruby Dee won an Oscar nom for her brief appearance as Lucas' mother. Washingston pretty much nails the suave but icy cold criminal, and Crowe again effortlessly pulls off an affable everyman trying to Do The Right Thing. Harris Savides' washed out cinematography helps to evoke the time period, as does the exemplary art direction by Arthur Max and Beth A. Rubino, both also nominated for Oscars. Scott knows how to block the action, and expectedly brings visual flair to most of the staggering 350 + locations on which GANGSTER was filmed. But the sum was strangely dissatisfying for such an ambitious production.
After it was over, I felt much like I had at the end of SCARFACE, NEW JACK CITY, and BLOW, all of which GANGSTER ressembles: worn-out and willing to be done with it. Like another episode of Law & Order. Yeah, crime doesn't pay. What THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS did was leave the viewer with plenty of larger than life, almost mystical issues on which to ponder. When all the blood money is retrieved, all the friends and family lost, and all the henchmen are buried, how does one respond? I think I'd rather leave the theater with Michael Corleone's or Henry Hill's torment than Frank Lucas' bemusement.