Call it the black Scarface or the Harlem Godfather or just one hell of an exciting movie, but the fact-based, 1970s-era American Gangster is already looking like a major awards contender. Denzel Washington looms like a colossus as notorious drug lord Frank Lucas, and in the still, watchful center of his volcanic performance you’ll find the measure of a dangerous man. There’s more good news: A combustible Russell Crowe channels Serpico as Richie Roberts, the honest Jersey cop who aches to take Frank down. Steven Zaillian, sourcing Mark Jacobson’s 2000 New York magazine interview with Lucas (“The Return of Superfly”), brings scrappy life to a script that spans more than a decade. Camera legend Harris Savides shoots on the fly, as if he’d sneaked into a Seventies time capsule. And Ridley Scott, at the top of his game, directs like a man possessed. Jay-Z did a hip-hop concept album, unconnected to the soundtrack, to pay tribute.
So what’s the downside? The movie is long (157 minutes), overstuffed (horn-dog Richie’s court fight against his wife for child custody belongs on Lifetime), shadowed by innovators (Coppola, Scorsese, The Sopranos) and limited by giving equal time to Richie when — don’t kid yourself — Frank is the flame that draws us in. We see Frank first torching a victim, then pumping him full of bullets. In business, Frank doesn’t believe in a job half done. An uneducated force of nature from North Carolina who hits New York as a driver for black mobster Bumpy Johnson (a knockout Clarence Williams III), Frank is soon a star peddler of heroin. And he does it the hard way, by cutting out the middlemen, including the mob. He flies to Southeast Asia to buy the junk, smuggles it stateside in the coffins of Vietnam soldiers, bribes police and the military, hires his brothers and cousins to help run his operation, and sits back with his wife — no less than Miss Puerto Rico (Lymari Nadal) — as the millions roll in from the drug he calls “Blue Magic.” He even buys his version of Graceland for his good mama (the superb Ruby Dee). No wonder Frank believes in America: The corporate lifestyle of lie-cheat-steal-kill works for him. Frank damn near flies under Richie’s radar until he breaks conservative form and pimps out by wearing a chinchilla coat and hat (gifts from his wife) to an Ali-Frazier fight. That makes him a target. Who wants him dead most? A rival dealer (Cuba Gooding Jr., returned to form)? A bad cop (Josh Brolin is chillingly good)? A mob boss (Armand Assante doing low sleaze to a high turn) who will never see blacks as paisanos? It’s the mobster who tells him, “It’s success that took a shot at you.” It’s also race, class, and the absence of truth and justice that currently define the American way. American Gangster isn’t all blistering action; it has bite and timely relevance. Frank and Richie are both outsiders playing by rules everyone else ignores. Even Richie’s crew laughs at him for not pocketing a million bucks in found drug money. But as Richie’s grip tightens around Frank, the movie closes in for the kill by crosscutting (shades of the Corleones) between a massacre and a church service. The climax also allows Washington and Crowe to finally occupy the screen together. As with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat, it all comes down to a few pointed words and banked fire in the eyes. Washington and Crowe clash like titans — they’re something to see.
Ditto the movie, which goes to the heart of America’s obsession with success as a killer instinct. That’s why the film’s moral indignation with Frank can’t match its fascination with his balls of steel. Superfly and Tony Montana are Hollywood fantasies. Frank is for real. As the real Frank said, “People like me. People like the fuck out of me.” Maybe that’s what’s so scary.