Release Date: November 2
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Steven Zallian
Cinematographer: Harris Savides
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin
Studio/Run Time: Universal Pictures, 157 mins.
It is no small irony that Ridley Scott's new film opens as the 25th anniversary revival of his 1982 classic, Blade Runner, platforms out across America. Slow and moody, Blade Runner bears little resemblance to newer Scott films like Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, which have evidenced progressively more influence from brother Tony's fast-cutting quirks.
With American Gangster, Scott harkens back to the more measured style of filmmaking evidenced in his defining sci-fi document. The director's world-building skills, never in doubt, are on full display as he recreates mid-'70s Harlem. But his storytelling once again prioritizes character over fast action. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, with the help of a talented supporting cast, light up this actor's piece, turning in one audience delight after another.
Washington is Frank Lucas, once right-hand man to a Harlem crime lord and eventually the most powerful and independent heroin dealer in New York City. Criminal or not, Lucas defines the American dream. He identified a need for smack and cut out mob middlemen to get it straight from the source, smuggling dope from Vietnam in the coffins of dead American soldiers. Quickly he prospered by selling massive volumes of high-grade product at low cost. Lucas went so far as to brand his heroin "Blue Magic."
Heavy subtext lies barely beneath the surface, concerning the opportunities and achievements of black businessmen, one's family ties and the conflict between patriotism and personal success. Scott's easy hand with the narrative lets these ideas breathe life into what might have been another lurid gangland slog.
Steve Zallian's script distills a complex and outrageous historical timeline into a tense and gripping drama populated by characters every bit as interesting as Frank Lucas. Crowe is Ritchie Roberts, a too-honest cop given license to create an independent anti-drug unit, and he shines in the role. The actor's personality has threatened to eclipse his onscreen appeal, but here he submerges into Roberts and displays his considerable abilities in every frame. Meanwhile, Josh Brolin's amazing 2007 run continues with his tasty appearance as a corrupt cop. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ted Levine and Armand Assante all contribute a unique strength and credibility. Scott even makes T.I. and RZA look like actors.
But the movie belongs to Washington and Crowe; the former cool and menacing, the latter slumped and disheveled. As in Heat's Pacino/deNiro pairing, their conflict bears the most fruit in the final reel. When Washington and Crowe finally collide, the film sparks into overdrive despite the fact that the encounter isn't a uniquely energetic one within the context of the film. From beginning to end, American Gangster crackles with just these sorts of performances - the ones that make genre filmmaking look like art.