If you think the title “American Gangster” sounds generic, wait until you see the movie. A shopworn compendium of charismatic crooks, scruffy cops, corruption, temptation and absolution, the film makes one regret that Denzel Washington already made a movie called “Déjà Vu,” since that’s what he’s trafficking in here.
If nothing else, “Gangster” provides employment for lots of talented, under-employed actors of color, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba and Joe Morton. And fans of bad wigs will enjoy the parade of awful toupees as the film’s action takes us from 1968 Harlem into the 1970s.
Washington stars as real-life drug kingpin Frank Lucas, who inherits a Harlem crime empire upon the death of his mentor (Clarence Williams III). Frank then shrewdly sets up a heroin pipeline from war-torn Vietnam, with U.S. soldiers smuggling the pure, uncut stuff on military aircraft under the noses of the authorities. Once Lucas makes a fortune, flooding the market with cheap, high-quality horse, he brings his family up from the South and sets his brothers up as lieutenants.
Meanwhile, cop and deadbeat dad Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is working his way through law school at night and proving himself to be the purest cop in the force by seizing a million bucks in dirty money and actually turning it in. Eventually, he makes his way up to Nixon’s anti-drug task force, so naturally Lucas winds up in Richie’s sights. Adversarial to both of these guys is the NYPD’s rottenest apple, Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin).
One big problem with “Gangster” is that it borrows so shamelessly from other movies that you’ll find yourself distracted by playing Where Have I Seen This Before? “The Godfather,” “The French Connection,” “Goodfellas,” “Supercop” and even “Catch Me If You Can” and “Trading Places” get shout-outs, perhaps unintentionally, by director Ridley Scott. Scott also manages the seemingly impossible feat of keeping the proceedings simultaneously flashy and dull, although there are a few scenes that definitely click — particularly ones where Washington faces off with his underworld rivals in a very matter-of-fact, businesslike way.
Unfortunately, those are the only moments where Washington seems compelled to act at all. Both he and Crowe used to be vibrant and exciting screen presences, but lately, they simply show up, glower and posture. Interviews with the two suggest they’ve turned into two of Hollywood’s biggest blowhards, and that lack of humor about themselves has bled into their screen work. Instead of well-drawn characters, we get a lot of macho chest-puffing and an unending manhood-measuring contest.
Telling a true story doesn’t excuse a filmmaker from making his movie stand out from the many others that have traversed similar ground. It’s shocking that the director behind such riveting films as “Alien,” “Thelma and Louise” and the underrated “Kingdom of Heaven” (the director’s cut and not the theatrical version) has brought so little punch to the proceedings.