American Gangster is violence polished

Grade: B-Running time: 157 mins.Rated: R

Several critics have noted the intense opening moments of American Gangster, in which Denzel Washington lights a man on fire and blasts him away. While the film does possess a few powerful moments, overall it’s a moderate disappointment.

Based on the story of real life Harlem mob boss Frank Lucas, American Gangster chronicles both Lucas’ rise to power and the investigation surrounding him by Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who intends to haul Lucas off to prison. The film is directed by Ridley Scott – the man behind masterpieces Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator – with a style more akin to a Martin Scorsese picture. Scott has become something of a master of all genres of film and American Gangster is no exception. It certainly looks and feels like a classic crime drama, but despite the best efforts of all involved, it comes up short.

Although one would think that the subject matter lends itself remarkably to the screen, the film never quite finds its focus. Crime dramas essentially serve as portraits of immorality. They are meant to illustrate how and why the men behind such heinous crimes became who they are. American Gangster offers little insight into its characters and viewers never really get to know what makes Lucas tick. He remains a mystery, so the film never fully draws you in. The audience is left to merely observe Lucas’ reign but is never invited to participate in his – or Roberts’ – journey.

Naturally, Washington and Crowe – who last shared the screen in 1995’s sci-fi thriller Virtuosity – both give strong performances. However, since they are considered two of the finest actors working today, it’s disappointing that these two Hollywood heavyweights never get the chance to truly clash. In fact, they don’t share a single scene until the last 15 minutes of the film. Although there’s a certain artistic way of building up to this long-awaited confrontation, Scott gives his actors precious little time to work with on that front. When Washington and Crowe finally do meet, the resulting interrogation scene is the best in the film. If these two had shared more screen time, American Gangster would have been a much more riveting experience.

The biggest problem with the film, though, is that it’s too polished. The plot moves along a bit too slowly, and the characters – on both sides of the law – remain far too cool throughout much of the movie. Since this is the case, it never truly lets loose like the best gangster films do. It arrives hoping to achieve the same success as last year’s masterful The Departed, but American Gangster doesn’t even come close to matching that film’s electrifying cops-and-robbers tale. The film almost seems afraid to get dirty, as if it’s outfitted in one of Lucas’ expensive suits. Gritty realism is what’s missing from most of the 157-minute running time.

With a stellar cast and some memorable moments, American Gangster is by no means a poor film, but with its pedigree, it should have been a masterpiece.