Citizen Denzel

Denzel Washington's star power can't save this ambitious take on power and corruption.

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click to enlarge HEAVYWEIGHT SHOWDOWN: Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star as men on opposites sides of the law in American Gangster. - Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
HEAVYWEIGHT SHOWDOWN: Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star as men on opposites sides of the law in American Gangster.

It's almost impossible to approach American Gangster without a U-Haul full of great expectations. Clocking in at nearly three hours, reuniting the Gladiator dream team of Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott (we'll forget about A Good Year for the moment) and adding heavyweight Denzel Washington to the illustrious mix, American Gangster all but demands to be taken seriously.

Scott's based-on-fact take on '70s-era drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Washington) promises so much, in fact, that it practically arrives fully anointed as the latest addition to Hollywood's holy pantheon of gangster classics. The movie even begins with the melancholy strains of a muted trumpet straight out of The Godfather, then assaults us with the iconic opening image of the title character setting a guy on fire and, just for good measure, pumping him full of holes.

Relish those fireworks, though; they're over almost before they've begun.

Despite the intimations of grand, Coppola-esque crime drama and lurid Scarface-styled excess, American Gangster doesn't ultimately offer much that's epic, or even particularly juicy. There's nothing especially awful here, but there's little that's memorable either, just another professionally crafted but overlong Citizen Kane-lite rise-and-fall in which some antihero's good intentions are foiled by absolute power once again corrupting absolutely.

Washington plays the movie's Kane figure, an ambitious criminal-cum-businessman (the operative word in the title is American, after all) who walks that fine line separating the good guys and the bad guys. Frank Lucas does some very ugly things, but he also holds himself to a personal code inspired by his mentor, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams), a charismatic mobster who peddled smack at "fair" prices and stood on Harlem street corners handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving. (An outspoken advocate of homegrown commerce, Bumpy's 40-year-old rants against small businesses morphing into McDonald's and "chinks putting Americans out of work" are eerily prescient.)

Frank's a resourceful albeit occasionally ruthless entrepreneur, and that's about as close as the movie comes to insight. Frustrated by increasingly greedy pushers — and by cops confiscating dope and selling it back to the crooks at inflated prices — Frank quickly ascends to the top of the underworld's food chain by selling a product that's twice as potent for half the price. The movie follows Lucas as he eliminates the middleman, sets up a direct pipeline from 110th Street to the Southeast Asian source, then seals the deal by giving his lethal product a marketable brand name. "Like Pepsi," he explains.

Rather than root around a bit in the enormous contradictions in Frank's character, the movie spends most of its time simply cutting back and forth between Lucas and flawed-but-honest cop Richie Roberts (Crowe) — a structure that's supposed to establish parallels between the two men but that mainly serves to derail the film's narrative momentum.

Much is made of the cops in Scott's movie frequently being more corrupt than the crooks, and even the good ones, like Roberts, have no problem bending the law by, say, serving a subpoena with a sledgehammer (literally). Richie generally follows an uncommonly strict ethical code, though, and when he winds up turning in nearly a million dollars in unmarked stolen bills, the selfless gesture only serves to turn his fellow cops against him.

The movie cuts back and forth with maddening regularity between the two characters — throwing in too many superfluous subplots about Lucas' family members and Roberts' romantic entanglements — and it's not until almost an hour in that we begin to see the first indication of their stories merging, as we know they must. Richie doesn't even know Lucas exists until his partner, a Serpico clone obscured beneath a big '70s porno-moustache, develops a taste for the hard stuff and winds up OD'ing on Frank's purer-than-pure smack.

Even after this, though, the movie feels strangely unfocused as it continues to flit between its not-quite-parallel stories with little discernable rhyme or reason. Frank's story is laid out in a frustratingly scattershot and occasionally superficial manner, while Richie's story just isn't all that interesting, and you can see the film contorting itself to draw connections between the two men.

Steven Zaillian's script even resorts to having Roberts walk around for the whole movie with a Star of David around his neck, just so some government goon can eventually call him kike. In almost the same breath, the official hurls the N-word at Frank, a Screenwriting 101 ploy for conveniently establishing that both Lucas and Roberts are "outsiders" on more than one level.

In the tradition of Heat, American Gangster has the temerity (or the cluelessness) to put its two very big stars in the same movie and then basically refuse to allow them to cross paths. Crowe and Washington don't actually meet face to face until close to the bitter end, nearly two and a half hours into the fray, and when their one big scene together finally materializes, it's far from electrifying. There's plenty of soul-baring in that brief exchange, but when the script begins inexplicably edging Frank and Richie into some forced 11th-hour camaraderie, American Gangster comes uncomfortably close to revealing itself as the buddy movie that seems to have been lurking within all along.

The film's production values are as high as what we typically expect from Sir Ridley, but the story feels weirdly cramped and, for all the bloated running time, rushed. Frank's rise to the top occurs in such a burst of narrative shorthand that we barely understand how or why it's happening, and his love connection with a Puerto Rican beauty queen is even more compressed (one second they're locking eyes in a smoky room, the next he's taking her home to meet Mama). The acting is solid, of course, but even when the script points in the right direction — and this is the kicker — it's hard to completely accept Denzel in this role.

We're supposed to see Frank Lucas as a Don Corleone-like fusion of appalling brutality and humanity, but the very same qualities that have made Denzel such a bankable star — decency just seems to emanate from the guy — make him too benign a presence to really put this role across.

After that opening image of Frank setting the guy on fire, there's almost zero spookiness or volatility to the character, no real sense of danger. Even his occasional outbursts seem skin-deep, and American Gangster follows suit, blandly proficient and a long way from that pantheon with Coppola, Scorsese and company.

To find showtimes for American Gangster and all other films playing locally go to Film at sarasota.creativeloafing.com.

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