If there’s one thing I took away from Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, it’s this: It’s really, really hard to make a fresh, original mob movie. This isn’t to suggest Scott’s film is a bad one: On the contrary, the movie is exceptionally well-made, with a sharp script, meticulous direction, and typically terrific performances from its leads, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Had it been made 35 years ago, it would be a classic.
But it wasn’t made 35 years ago, and over the intervening decades, variations on its characters, themes, dialogue, and overall storyline have appeared onscreen so often that, for all its quality, American Gangster feels a little shopworn. Rather than a classic, it feels like a recipe mixed from past classics and near-classics--healthy portions of The Godfather and Goodfellas, dollops of Serpico and Prince of the City, occasional splashes of Scarface and The French Connection and New Jack City and even Apocalypse Now.
American Gangster is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Washington), a late-1960s/early-1970s Harlem drug lord whom the film portrays as being “above” the Mafia. (He’s actually their primary source for heroin, which really isn’t the same thing, but close enough.) It’s a conceit--a black boss more powerful than the Mob!--that, in theory, offers a novel retelling of the gangster saga. In practice, though, the familiar tropes are all still there: The smart, quiet young man who listens and learns as a mob underling; who publicly takes down a local strongman to show his mettle; who acquires wealth, stature, and a sexy trophy wife (Lymari Nadal); who is let down by the flash and incompetence of his associates, etc., etc. We hear the same old lectures about the importance of family, and are treated to the same ironic montages combining the sacred and profane (here, it’s “Amazing Grace” played as Lucas’s crew is rounded up and carted to jail).
The movie’s more novel innovation is to pair this genre formula with another, the police procedural. Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe) is a cop of Frank Serpico-like incorruptibility, a trait that’s made him deeply mistrusted within the department. (When he refuses to dip into the bagful of cash he finds in a drug dealer’s car, he’s seen as not merely crazy, but dangerous.) Given drug lords’ tendency to buy off the police, however, his chief (Ted Levine) decides Roberts is the perfect man to put in charge of an anti-drug task force. Soon, he’s got his nose to the pavement trying to figure out just where “Blue Magic,” a powerful new street-brand of heroin, comes from.
The answer is Indochina. In an effort to cut out the middle men, drug boss Lucas has made a personal pilgrimage to Vietnam and rafted upriver seeking not a heart of darkness but a reliable supplier. He finds one in a courteous Kuomintang general (Ric Young) who is happy to sell wholesale. In a gruesome twist, Lucas, with the help of a cousin-by-marriage in the Army, smuggles his product back to the States in the caskets of fallen servicemen. By controlling the entire process from production to street sale, Lucas is able to keep prices low and quality high, driving competitors out of business and establishing himself as the go-to man for quality junk in New York. It’s only a matter of time, of course, before Detective Roberts is onto him.
The two gifted leads cat-and-mouse their way along from there, though in a pleasant break from (silly) cinematic tradition, they never meet face-to-face until the final bust that brings Lucas down. Washington puts his sleek charisma to good use as the fastidious Lucas, a man who can shoot someone in the head without batting an eye but is thrown into turmoil by a splash of blood on his rug. (“That’s a $25,000 alpaca,” he hollers at a flunky trying desperately to mop it up. “You blot that shit, you don’t rub it!”) The one time Washington overplays his hand is in a scene after an attempted hit: Channeling Pacino at his most overheated, he pounds his chest with both fists while frothing “They tried to kill my wife!” (The line is, of course, featured in the trailer and will doubtless be trotted out come Oscar time in the likely event Washington gains an acting nod.) It’s not a particularly deep or probing performance, but it’s a compelling one nonetheless.
Crowe is comparably strong as the rumpled Roberts, and while the role is a less iconic one, it also allows for greater subtlety. His backstory (a child-custody fight with his ex-wife, etc.) meanders a bit, but Crowe manages to keep it clear of melodrama, and even uncovers an insight or two: Roberts is, as his ex-wife charges, a man who uses his squeaky clean professional reputation as license to be an utter jackass in his personal life--a mirror image of Lucas, the murderous family man. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is one of the deepest and richest in recent memory, featuring (among many others), Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding Jr., John Hawkes, Carla Gugino, Ruby Dee, Armand Assante, and Joe Morton.
Scott’s direction is confident, precise, and straightforward. He cuts carefully back and forth between Lucas’s story and Roberts’s, but generally eschews gaudier effects. His one peculiar decision is to relegate the post-bust relationship between Lucas and Roberts--in many ways, the most odd and fascinating turn the film takes--to a relatively brief postscript in his two-hour-37-minute epic. But then, perhaps that’s the point. Scott clearly knows his film rolls along in well-worn tracks--his title, after all, could double as the name of the genre he’s working in. American Gangster isn’t daring or revelatory, and doesn’t have much to say about crime or society or human nature that hasn’t been said before. But it demonstrates how, in the proper hands, everything old can be new again.
CHRISTOPHER ORR is a senior editor at The New Republic.