Washington and Crowe impress in Gangster film

Andrew Gaug

Photo courtesy of Universal Studios

Credit: Ron Soltys


Starring: Denzel Washington, Russel Crowe, Josh Brolin, RZA

Directed by Ridley Scott

Distributed by Universal Pictures

Rated R for violence, drug content and language, nudity, and sexuality.

Stater rating (out of five): 3.5

Like a runner that comes in second place in the Olympics, American Gangster has all the potential for greatness, but settles for just being good.

The film plays like two movies wrapped up with a short film, all based on true events.

The first is the story of Frank Lucas, well-played by Denzel Washington. Lucas grew up in The Bronx under the wing of a gang leader. After he dies, Lucas decides he’ll be his heir to the streets, except with more structure and no fear of his enemies.

The way Lucas takes over is through developing a new brand of heroin he calls “Blue Magic.” Like a Wal-Mart of drugs, he undercuts the competition by selling the purest form known on the market for the cheapest price. From there, we watch his rise and inevitable fall.

The other story is the person behind that fall, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).

Though his life is a whirlwind of turmoil with his soon-to-be ex-wife and womanizing, he’s an honest cop intent on cracking down on the bad guys. After being assigned to track down and put a halt to the drug rings that are plaguing New York City, he and his rag-tag group of officers search Mafia rings and gangs looking to find who’s behind “Blue Magic.” Chaos and some surprising humor ensue until the movie’s excellent-but-rushed finale.

With an Oscar-winning director (Gladiator’s Ridley Scott) and two of the most famous and acclaimed leading men of the decade, American Gangster had all the build-up to either be excellent or a complete flop, much like Scott and Crowe’s last film, A Good Year.

The movie falls somewhere in the middle. Both Crowe and Washington could give courses on screen presence in their sleep and both are fine in their roles. Crowe gives an excellent turn balancing the sleaziness of Roberts while remaining a strong leader. Washington plays Lucas like a more organized Scarface with traces of Alonzo Harris from Training Day. The problem is that because Lucas is such a multidimensional character, there’s no way to narrow him down even with American Gangster’s more than 2-and-a-half hour running time.

The same goes for the movie. It’s a satisfying film, but has problems overloading itself with too many characters and loose ends it never bothers tying up.

When Lucas and Roberts finally meet for the final quarter of the movie, it’s everything the two hours that preceded it should have been — exhilarating and intense.

The gift and curse of Gangster is that it has two interesting stories on its hands, but it’s almost impossible to balance both without sacrificing one story for the other.

On that front, it almost gets a perfect balancing act. Unfortunately, Gangster is not one of the year’s best movies, just one of the better ones.

Contact all correspondent Andrew Gaug at [email protected].