Ridley Scott’s American Gangster opens with callous urban cruelty as a man is tied to a chair, doused with petrol and set on fire. But the reasons behind this violent act are less to do with anarchy than with good business, or at least that’s the lesson which dying mob-boss Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) imparts to aspiring gangster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington).
Adapted by Schindler’s List writer Steven Zallian from an article by Mark Jacobson, American Gangster follows Lucas’s trajectory from chauffeur to crime-boss who runs his international heroin empire with the entrepreneurial pride of a businessman. Although the project was previously developed for Training Day director Antione Fuqua, this true story allows Scott to revisit the internecine theme of his 1977 historical drama The Duellists, drawing parallels between Lucas, a family man and respected member of his community, and his nemesis Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the one good cop who vows to bring Lucas down. A hard-driven cop from the Serpico school of gritty police legwork, Roberts lonely existence presents an inverted reflection of Lucas’ opulent lifestyle, wolfing down a tuna sandwich for his thanksgiving meal while Lucas proudly slices the turkey with his extended family gathered around.
While the title aims for an epic feel, American Gangster unfolds in disappointingly generic terms, at close to three hours this plays the long game of cops and robbers spiked with some memorably brutal street-slayings and cut to a derivative soundtrack of 60s and 70s hits. There’s breezy detail in the threads – check out Denzel’s furry jim-jams when his model wife unwisely persuades him to show some bling-bling in public. But with Washington and Crowe phoning in bland performances and Scott directing in his usual convoluted, long-winded style, American Gangster’s consideration of the dirty secrets of capitalist America is merely watchable when it really should have kicked ass and taken names.
General release from Fri 16 Nov.