It’s quite something to have two of the best actors in the world as the leads of your movie and not have them share the screen for more than 10 minutes. Michael Mann pulled that trick with De Niro and Pacino in “Heat”, and now Ridley Scott does the same with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe here. Not that I’m complaining. Au contraire, I think it’s great how the film follows these parallel narratives throughout, which are related in obvious ways (Crowe’s cop is investigating towards arresting Washington’s drug trafficker) and in more subtle ones (watch how one’s life mirrors the other’s, and how they differ).
Even more incredible is how, for my money, neither one of these two guys makes the most vivid impression in this film. Oh, Washington and Crowe are both great, no question, but I came out of the theater with one name on my lips: Josh motherfuckin’ Brolin. In my “Grindhouse” review, I wrote that he was obnoxious but, of course, his Doc Block was supposed to be obnoxious… I don’t know why he didn’t win me over then when, in retrospect, he was a pretty great villain in that too. Anyway, I definitely enjoyed his similarly loathsome turn here. Because make no mistake, Washington might be playing the titular American gangster, but the villain of the piece is definitely Brolin’s rotten to the core New York cop. What an asshole this guy is! You’ll love hating him through the film, relishing the thought of his inevitable comeuppance.
Now, let me backtrack a bit. So Detective Trupo (Brolin) is getting bribes from Frank Lucas (Washington) and, on the flipside, he’s barking at Richie Roberts (Crowe), pressuring him to stop investigating the “cash cow” that is Lucas. For Lucas has, over the years since the death of Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), his former employer, not only replaced him as the kingpin of Harlem, but has even outdone the Mafia as far as the drug traffic goes. How? By taking his black ass to the Southeast Asia jungle and getting heroin straight from the source, pure as the morning snow and for a low price, too! This allows him to make great business, naturally, because he’s got a better product than the competition and he’s selling it cheaper. At times, this almost feels like the great American success story of a self-made man, but Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian have the good sense of never making us forget that Lucas isn’t such a standup guy. Every time it seems like they’re making him too sympathetic, they cut to images of the ugly consequences of the addiction he feeds or they show him killing somebody.
Meanwhile, Roberts is said to be “the only honest cop in town”, and the rest of the force hates him for it. Also making being the good guy seem not all that appealing is the fact that, while Lucas lives in wealth, is married to a beauty queen (Lymari Nadal), spends time with his family and is respected by his community, Roberts is broke and getting divorced. All he’s got to keep him going, basically, is his drive to bring down Lucas, which brings us back to the parallel narratives and how we impatiently await the moment when they will connect. And let me tell you, the scene when Washington and Crowe finally come face to face is a doozy. Superfly vs. Serpico!
At times, “American Gangster” can feel familiar, recalling gangster movie classics like “The Godfather”, “GoodFellas” and “Scarface”, but this comes with the territory: there aren’t that many different ways you can rise through the ranks of the crime world, violently make yourself respected, etc. But Scott’s directing style brings a different kind of energy than what you’d get from Coppola, Scorsese or De Palma (not better, mind, but different), the 1970s period recreation is flawless and there are some memorable set pieces, notably the extremely intense drug raid in the projects.
And then of course there are the excellent performances across the board, from Crowe, Washington and my man Brolin, but also the great Chiwetel Ejiofor (who’d previously co-starred with Denzel in “Inside Man”), Armand Assante, Coen brothers regular Jon Polito, rappers Common and RZA, and even a pimped out Cuba Gooding Jr.