In Ridley Scott's American Gangster, Denzel Washington plays the title character, North Carolina-born Frank Lucas, a Harlem drug kingpin who, back during the Vietnam War, became both ghoulishly infamous and fabulously wealthy smuggling heroin from Southeast Asia to the U.S. in the coffins and body bags of dead American soldiers.
One of the movie's key scenes occurs at the 1971 Frazier-Ali fight at Madison Square Garden. Lucas, already one of New York's most successful dealers, arrives at the match looking like the underworld star he is, grinning, waving to celebrity pals, and decked out in an outfit to beat Superfly—a chinchilla coat and matching hat.
There were two reasons, I decided later, why this scene stuck in my mind after the film, and neither had anything to do with how spiffy Denzel looks in chinchilla (although he does). Both, rather, point up the awkward feel and craftsmanship of Scott's film.
One: Although we're now several years into Lucas' story, and maybe halfway into the movie, this scene marks the first time that he crosses paths with his nominal adversary, cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Is it not unavoidably frustrating in a movie when the two main antagonists almost never see each other? In this movie, it is, and this scene, alas, is only a tease: It's a long time till Lucas and Roberts converge for real.
Two: That chinchilla. It just doesn't make sense, doesn't jibe with the Frank Lucas that the movie—and Denzel—describes to us otherwise. In a later scene, Lucas berates one of his underlings for dressing flamboyantly, and this strategic conservatism seems one of the keys to his success: He rose from being an uneducated gofer to the veritable Donald Trump of uptown pushers in large part by not calling attention to himself.
Admittedly, the movie gives us a reason for Lucas' spasm of sartorial ostentation here (his hot new wife gave him the coat). And for all I know, the real Lucas may well have attended the Frazier-Ali bout in full chinchilla regalia.
But this isn't a documentary. It's a drama, and the fact that its protagonist lacks the consistency needed to make a character seem believable only indicates an array of deeper problems. American Gangster would like to be seen as a top-shelf gangster saga like The Godfather. It might settle for being able to boast the mythic excess of De Palma's Scarface or any number of gleeful blaxploitation shoot'em-ups.
But it can claim neither, really. In the final analysis, it's just another mega-budget Hollywood movie that repackages familiar genre moves with A-level stars for a result that proves dismayingly hackneyed and poorly imagined. Of course it will make boatloads of money. Indeed, that's the kind of gangster movie it is—one determined to make out like a bandit, no matter what else may be said of it.
Many of the film's weaknesses come back to its main character. That's not, however, to suggest that Frank Lucas lacks dramatic potential. On the contrary, his gritty and gruesome life story has an outlandish abundance of narrative grabbers.
Raised near La Grange, N.C., he landed in Harlem as a teenager after World War II and was taken under the wing of Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a legendary gangster who read Shakespeare, listened to Beethoven and styled himself a black Robin Hood. When Lucas took over after Bumpy's death in the mid-'60s, he dispensed with his mentor's high-minded style and idealism, but brought to the operation a ruthless, street-smart pragmatism, as well as a particular innovation that allowed an ill-bred country boy to vault over the heads of his Mafia competitors in the New York drug trade.
As the movie shows, the unworldly Lucas went off to Southeast Asia, connected with a cousin in the U.S. military, then made his way from Bangkok to the poppy plantations of the "Golden Triangle," where Laos, Burma and Thailand converge. Once he figured out how to use his military connections to gain free transport for the drugs back to the U.S., his direct access to the Southeast Asian producers allowed him to import huge quantities of heroin, and to offer an unusually high grade of it to street buyers.
Lucas' "Blue Magic" became the heroin of choice in Harlem. He later claimed he could make a million dollars a day dealing on 116th Street. But he wasn't working alone. He brought up a network of kin from down home, and soon the Country Boys, as they were known, comprised a kind of black North Carolina Mafia in New York.
Eventually caught, imprisoned (he served only nine years) and deprived of his Cayman Island bank accounts and most of the rest of his ill-gotten super-fortune, Lucas in 2000 told his tale to journalist Mark Jacobson for a New York magazine profile titled "The Return of Superfly." The piece was acquired by high-powered producer Brian Grazer, who's best known as Ron Howard's partner on movies like A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code.
Like many another movie that's spent a lot of time in development hell, with various stars and A-list directors attached, and endless rewrites by various writers, American Gangster has a feel that's at once over-prepared and ad hoc, and it reflects realities that belong more to Hollywood, no doubt, than to the heroin trade of 40 years ago.
Presumably, one decision was made early on by Grazer, perhaps in conjunction with Steve Zaillian, the film's sole credited screenwriter (though surely others worked on it): the need for a white character to balance Lucas. How do you suppose Hollywoodites explain such a "necessity" to each other: Is it that a big-budget movie like this one must have at least two star names to guarantee opening-weekend box-office punch? Or, more honestly, that white audiences can't be counted on to turn out for a movie that centers on a murderous black pusher, even if he's played by Denzel?
Whatever the reason, Richie Roberts does not appear in Jacobson's New York article, and he apparently only played a minor part in Lucas' story. But here he is, pumped up and inserted all too artificially into the tale as someone for white folks to identify with, and as a role for Russell Crowe to play.
Crowe and Denzel are, inarguably, two of the most charismatic actors in movies—I'll go see anything either appears in—and one of the marks of American Gangster's thoroughgoing mediocrity is that it does so little memorable or striking with these performers, individually or—more crucially—together.
For all intents, they inhabit two different movies, neither in the least bit novel. If Denzel's playing Scarface, Superfly and Cotton Comes to Harlem, Crowe's essaying a tired remix of The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City. Notorious as the cop so dumbly honest that he found a million dollars cash in the trunk of a car and turned it in, Richie Roberts has a ruined marriage, a wandering eye and a crooked partner. He exists in a time and place of pandemic police corruption.
Unfortunately, none of this has much to do with Frank Lucas, so Richie seems to exist in an alternate universe, away from the main action, and there's little that Crowe—looking seedy-collegiate with his floppy late-'60s hair—can do to enliven the part he's given. You only have to see Crowe in a brilliantly written role like the ambivalent bandit in 3:10 to Yuma to understand by comparison how badly the script here serves him.
Much of the curious flavorlessness of Denzel's portrayal of Lucas can also be put down to Zaillian's screenplay. Leaving aside the issue of how much of it is actually his, the hallmarks are familiar. Zaillian is one of those screenwriters whose adaptations of other writers' works—e.g., Schindler's List, Gangs of New York—catapulted him to a professional level far above that of his evident talents. Of the three films he's both written and directed, two, A Civil Action and All the King's Men, are among the most turgid and inept Hollywood movies I've ever seen. The latter's travestying of Robert Penn Warren's novel included a spectacularly tone-deaf approach to Southern vernacular; Variety compared its Louisiana accents to an amateur production of L'il Abner.
No surprise, then, that Lucas and his Tar Heel posse hardly seem North Carolinian, or Southern or, for that matter, black. Same for the rest of the characters and milieus portrayed, in terms of convincing cultural textures: They all seem derived not from any life knowledge, but only from other, often far more superior movies.
Yet the big failure here, the character of Frank, must also be laid to the star and the director. Denzel has cultivated a straight-arrow image and used it to brilliant effect in many roles. In Training Day, he first played a villain, which is how Hollywood likes its black men, and he won an Oscar for it. But he seems not to cotton to Lucas, not to want to stoop to his level of gnarly, lethal badness, so he goes through the motions—shoots the guns, wears the chinchilla—without really committing himself to it. It's as if he feared being contaminated by the real Frank Lucas.
For his part, Scott remains a director as notable for his stylistic skill as for his essential cynicism. He has an undeniable feel for the mythic, the grand, and for pulp genres that can be resuscitated with the techniques of TV commercials. But making a compelling whole out of Zaillian's bifurcated script and Denzel's distanced performance defeats him; he gives the film an energetic, visually meticulous surface and leaves it at that, perhaps conserving his strengths for other, more promising material ahead.
American Gangster opens Friday throughout the Triangle.