Not too long ago, the world was treated to the news that some passionate reformer had developed a twelve-step program for gang members, a sort of “gangster’s anonymous” meant to help those burdened with lifelong addictions to gang culture find their way out. Whatever one thinks of the program’s virtues in the inner city, it may eventually find its home in the writing and pitching rooms of Hollywood movie studios — because clearly, they just can’t get enough.
For decades, Tinseltown has engaged in a torrid love affair with the gangster. And like so many love affairs, the allure was based as much in myth and fantasy as in truth — meaning that many of cinema’s greatest scoundrels and criminals have also been its greatest heroes. Murderers, drug dealers, thieves, corruptors — the silver screen has welcomed and celebrated them all, provided they supply they requisite style and gravitas.
American Gangster takes this notion to its logical extreme. Often dazzling, often gripping, always watchable, it exerts the sort of glamorous, high-gloss magnetism that comes from having the best Hollywood minds and star-power that money (about $100 million, in this case) can buy. Directed by Ridley Scott, the man behind Gladiator, Alien, and Thelma and Louise, written by Steve Zaillian, who previously scripted Schindler’s List and Gangs of New York, and, with A-list leading men Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in the leads, featuring a supernova’s worth of star power, the movie is never less than entertaining. But despite the epic proportions to which its title aspires, it rarely rises above the level of entertainment. And its narrative implications, by any reasonable reading, are simply bizarre. It lionizes a man who was among the progenitors of inner-city drug culture, and weirdly implies, without any hint of irony or self-awareness, that the spread of addiction in black culture was a triumph of racial equality.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Ridley Scott has little or no idea what his film is actually suggesting — or simply doesn’t care. Scott has always been a first-rate visualist, a cinematic world-builder with a knack for layering intricate details into meticulously crafted environments. His best films — Gladiator, Blade Runner, Alien — are meditations on place as much as compelling narratives. And sure enough, Gangster looks immaculate, as if Scott somehow rented a time machine and shot it back to New York circa 1970. The presentation of the era is stunning, portrait-like. Scott has tapped into both the sweeping romantic’s dream of mid-century Harlem, and its grimy, low-rent reality.
But despite the acuity of his eye, Scott has often evinced only a superficial concern for the ideas underlying his films (only someone not paying attention could have thought that Kingdom of Heaven made any sort of coherent thematic sense). This might explain why Zaillian’s screenplay is the film’s weakest element. Like Scarface, Goodfellas, and The Godfather, it chronicles the life and times of a high-powered gangster, watching as he rises from no-name, mid-level hood to a rich and powerful master of the universe (or at least the neighborhood). But Zaillian and Scott seem content to suggest, rather than show — taking care of far too much crucial business in breezy montages and then skipping straight to the dramatic showdowns. They seem to assume that the audience will have seen all the other pertinent gangster films and thus be able to fill in the blanks.
That gangster in question is Harlem’s original drug kingpin, Frank Lucas (a real life figure, somewhat fictionalized for the film), played here with chest-beating fervor by Washington. Swaggering through the picture in the era’s finest tailored threads, he’s huge on the screen, a redwood amongst saplings. Washington could imbue a Bob Herbert column with heavy drama, so it’s no surprise that he dominates. Cocky yet calm, fiery yet restrained — a gentleman and a madman; Washington makes Lucas’s astounding success believable because he seems to be all things at all times, and yet still maintains a powerful sense of control. He’s both a chameleon and a superman.
On the other side of law is Crowe, playing Richie Roberts, the cop on Lucas’s tail. Crowe looks frayed, unkempt, wrinkled all over, like his entire life has come out of the dryer too early. He shrugs and slumps, seems short and small and slightly doughy, like a grumpy Hobbit raised in Jersey. It’s a fittingly workmanlike portrayal of a blue-collar guy, but one that puts Crowe in a weakened position against his costar. The casting of both Crowe and Washington is clearly supposed to present a battle of the titans, two heavyweight leads facing off like De Niro and Pacino in Heat. But no matter how much the film tries to put the two on equal footing, Washington rules.
At a certain point, Scott seems to give up and recognize that it’s Washington’s movie, and the heart of the story is the drug-lord he plays. And this is where things get dicey. Despite the occasional nod to the drug-inflicted suffering that spreads as a result of Lucas’s heroin operation — there are shots of babies left crying on their beds while their parents overdose — Scott never fails to portray Lucas in the most positive possible light. His rise to the top of the drug ranks in Harlem is fashioned as a victory against white oppression, an old-fashioned capitalist success story. All the cops aside from Roberts are menacing caricatures (Zaillian might as well have named Josh Brolin’s corrupt goon-squad leader Gargamel); Gangster has a higher view of dealers than it does of cops.
Weirder still is the film’s final shot (this isn’t spoiling anything important), which shows Lucas emerging from prison in the mid 80s. Public Enemy blares from a car stereo, and all the signatures of drug-related, 1980s urban decay are evident. The message is obvious: This messy, miserable, lawless, poverty-stricken, substance-addicted world is Lucas’s creation. Yet Scott seems to want to praise him for it anyway. One needn’t be an ardent anti-drug crusader to be baffled and put off by this a rather screwy vision of black empowerment. It’s one thing to recognize the allure of the gangster lifestyle and play to its myths. It’s another to buy into that allure and fall for those myths, which is just what the movie does. For all its flash, pizzazz, and self-confidence, American Gangster has no idea what it’s peddling.