On paper American Gangster sounds like a home run. It stars two charismatic Oscar winners, re-teams Russell Crowe with his Gladiator director Ridley Scott and is written by the Oscar winning screenwriter behind Schindler’s List. That‘s all good right? Well, not exactly. Based on a true story—just like recent big winners Walk the Line, Ray and Capote—it is the kind of late-year release that seems almost guaranteed to garner Academy attention, but in reality American Gangster is less than the sum of its parts.
Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, the one-time driver for a Harlem mob boss who rises to the top of the drug world by flooding the streets of Manhattan with cheap, high grade heroin smuggled into the United States in the coffins of dead soldiers returning from Vietnam. He’s a dichotomy, bloodthirsty and ruthless, he also attends church every Sunday with his Mother.
On the other side of the street is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a cop whose honesty makes him an outcast in his corrupt precinct. When his former partner dies from a drug overdose Roberts relentlessly devotes himself to ridding the streets of Lucas’s heroin.
Inevitably their paths cross as their worlds become intertwined.
Scott takes his time with the story, laying it out over the course of 157 minutes. Length is not necessarily a bad thing as Roger Ebert once pointed out—“No good movie is too long,”—and many other crime dramas have epic running times—The Godfather is 175 minutes long, Goodfellas just slightly shorter at 145 minutes—and remained compelling right through to the end credits, but American Gangster feels like it is 157 minutes.
The difference between Scott’s movie and The Godfather or Goodfellas is that they were masterfully paced, blending the crime elements of the plot with carefully tailored stories of family life and the importance of loyalty. American Gangster tries for the same richness of story, but succeeds only in presenting a rambling first hour, cluttered with subplots and meaningless, although beautifully shot, scenes that add little to the overall story.
For instance, a fair amount of time is spent on Roberts’s troubled personal life and a drawn out custody battle. It struck me that the whole family drama aspect of Roberts’s life belonged in another movie. Excising that story thread from American Gangster could easily save half-an-hour and some wear and tear on our already strained backsides and bladders.
Sir Ridley puts some lipstick on this pig, tarting it up with great cinematography, nice attention to the 1970s period detail and well cast, although underused actors like Cuba Gooding Jr and Chiwetel Ejiofor, in supporting roles. For all its angels, however, American Gangster is simply too ambitious for its own good and is in need of a talented editor to bring out the important aspects of the story and snip the rest.
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