Not only is American Gangster dumb as a rock, but it’s also far too convinced of its import to be any fun. Except, that is, in unintentional ways, and there are quite a few of those to be found in Ridley Scott’s epic about Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the real-life ’70s heroin dealer who made a mint cutting out the middleman by acquiring his goods straight from Vietnam and then peddling them in his Harlem hometown. Unbelievable as it may seem, with his latest, Scott has actually made one pine for the pleasures of his brother Tony’s films, which at least have the good sense to revel in their own badness. Ridley, on the other hand, thinks he’s crafting his own Oscar-baiting The Departed, an assumption predicated on the erroneous belief that his material is representative of something profound, and that his camerawork isn’t just proficiently bland. There may be no other prestige pic this year as mistakenly convinced of its own weightiness, with its title and subsequent scenes featuring Frank positing himself as the embodiment of can-do Yankee spirit (“My country!,” “This is America!”) failing to elevate the tale to the realm of the symbolic, but succeeding in giving this already klutzy, derivative gangster saga an added measure of pomposity.
As the film tells it, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Lucas went from being the driver of kingpin Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) to establishing his own empire via his revolutionary idea of dealing directly with his suppliers, in this case a Vietnamese bigshot whose product Lucas smuggled into the U.S. in, among other things, deceased soldiers’ coffins. As Lucas rose to the top of his game, noble cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) was losing both visitation rights with his son in bitter legal proceedings with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino), and the respect of his on-the-take police comrades by not keeping a stash of $1 million in unmarked bills. These men’s stories run concurrently in American Gangster, with Richie eventually assigned to head up a federal task force to take down Lucas’s drug empire, and it goes without saying that the clichéd story eventually casts the adversaries as more alike than different. Lucas may be a killer but he loves his mom (Ruby Dee), beauty queen wife (Lymari Nadal), and kid brother (Chiwetel Ejiofor)! And Richie may be a lousy, selfish husband and father, but he’s an honest cop! For Scott, that alone makes them two sides of the same black-and-white cookie.
American Gangster’s efforts to present its protagonists as figurative siblings is transparent and downright inane, especially—spoilers herein—during their climactic show of camaraderie, which is made even sillier and more noxious by Scott’s unfettered affection for the murderous Lucas. Such glorification, however, is moderated by the fact that the film doesn’t care a lick about Lucas as an actual person. As envisioned by screenwriter Steven Zaillian, he’s merely a suit-wearing cipher lazily adorned with what are supposed to pass as character traits, most of which are conveyed through dialogue: Frank likes “order,” strives to be a businessman and “gentleman,” and values hard work and loyalty. Why he’s in the drug game, what propels his professional drive (is it simply greed?), what specifically ignited his fierce desire to stick it to The Man, and the latent cause of his sudden (and wholly unbelievable) violent outbursts are all of no concern. Frank is, in the film’s eyes, just a cardboard symbol of the American Dream, and—as a black man infiltrating and conquering an industry previously run by Italians (here, embodied by a skeet-shooting Armand Assante!)—of “progress.”
Commence laughing at any point—it’s one of only three reactions (the other two being boredom and incredulity) warranted by this claptrap. The fact that Scott is out of his element in 1970s Harlem is only partially to blame for the timid lethargy of American Gangster, which features one engaging moment (the build-up to a drug den raid), no interesting cinematographic shots, and a pace so sluggish that even predictable soundtrack soul hits fail to pop. Josh Brolin sports Pat Riley hair and an evil moustache as a crooked cop, Cuba Gooding Jr. hams it up as Lucas’s rival Nicky “Mr. Untouchable” Barnes, and rappers abound (T.I., Common, RZA). Meanwhile, Scott feebly mimics The Godfather’s baptism-murder sequence, as well as pitifully attempts to mitigate his Lucas veneration by ending a Thanksgiving sequence (Frank at home carving turkey, Richie eating a potato chip-and-pickle sandwich) with the sham-critical image of a baby crying on a bed next to her passed-out junkie mother. And as for his leading men, Crowe once again complements Scott’s shallow direction with a superficial performance, and Washington matches his co-star beat for skin-deep beat, such as during an amusingly goofy scene featuring Lucas traveling on a pontoon boat into a Vietnamese heart of darkness. Apocalypse now, indeed.