“Washington and Crowe Feel the Heat”
by Scott Mantz

“American Gangster”
Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe
Directed by Ridley Scott

Justice is served! Denzel Washington spills the beans to Russell Crowe in “American Gangster”

Talk about a match made in heaven – does it get any better than Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott?

These guys could basically read from a phone book, and it would still make for essential viewing.  Fortunately, “American Gangster” – Scott’s 19th film as a director – makes for a much more compelling enterprise, but it also represents a return to form for “Gladiator” teammates Scott and Crowe, both of whom pretty much phoned it in with last year’s underwhelming “A Good Year.”

But “American Gangster” still falls short of the epic status that it was clearly striving for, since it glosses over the more fascinating aspects of its story in favor of recycling organized crime clichés from the likes of “The Godfather,” “Serpico,” “Prince of the City” and “Scarface.”  But in terms of its dynamic structure, the film it most closely resembles is “Heat,” since Washington and Crowe don’t actually meet face-to-face until a crucial point late into the proceedings.

Washington plays Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug kingpin who came to power in the late 60s by smuggling heroin into the U.S. from Southeast Asia.  Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the idealistic NYPD detective who sifts through the corruption of his own department in his efforts to bring him down.  Both are lone figures on opposite ends of the law, but their destinies will soon collide in ways that will completely shake up the foundation of drug enforcement in New York City.

In terms of its production values, there’s no question that “American Gangster” is a well-made movie.  No surprise there, since Ridley Scott has always been a visionary filmmaker with a keen eye for detail.  From classics like “Alien” and “Blade Runner” to modern triumphs like “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” Scott has always been a master at setting an atmospheric mood.  There are scenes in “American Gangster” that undoubtedly follow suit, though credit here must also be given to cinematographer Harris Savides (“Zodiac”).

But if Scott’s obsession with style tends to overshadow his ability to fully define his characters, then therein lies the problem with “American Gangster.”  Where Frank Lucas is concerned, Denzel Washington gives a solid performance, but he plays it a bit too understated to establish him with an unforgettable identity.  Russell Crowe – who re-teams with Washington after 1995’s “Virtuosity” – fares better at infusing more depth into Roberts, whose sincere dedication to his career is offset by his inability to be a good father.  And special mention must be made to Josh Brolin, who gives a standout performance in his supporting role as the corrupt cop who gives both of them trouble.

It’s just too bad that more attention was not paid to the one aspect of the story that would have made the film more unique – the execution of Lucas’ brilliant plan to smuggle heroin into the U.S. by hiding it in the body bags of the soldiers killed in Vietnam.  Alas, that’s not what screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) chose to focus on here, as he instead went down the road taken by a number of classic rise-and-fall crime sagas.  And at 2 hours and 37 minutes, the film runs too long and tries to cover too much ground.

To that extent, one can’t help but wonder what the end result would have been like had it gone forward with its original director, Antoine Fuqua.  Universal pulled the plug on Fuqua a few years ago when his budget soared past $100 million, and the film fell apart.  Producer Brian Grazer got it started again with Ridley Scott at the helm, but given how Fuqua pulled an Oscar-winning performance out of Denzel Washington for 2001’s “Training Day,” who knows how he would have fared with his version of “American Gangster.”

As it is, Scott’s version may not reach the heavenly heights that it was reaching for, but at least it comes close enough.