In his heyday, Frank Lucas was making a million dollars a day, selling unusually pure heroin he got factory-direct, as it were, smuggled from Asian opium fields inside the coffins of Vietnam War casualties. That true story, the one that serves as the basis for Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” is amazing. But Scott’s film is not.
Mark Jacobson’s article about Lucas, “The Return of Superfly,” is still available for free online here, and is worth a read if you’re interested in the story and the film. In Jacobson’s piece, Lucas narrates his own life, with all the flair (and, no doubt, exaggeration of facts) you’d expect from an unrepentant hustler. The movie is faithful to the broad strokes of Lucas’ life, but not necessarily to the specifics of his or Jacobson’s story. It leaves out some of the most outlandish (and seemingly most cinematic) details like an incredible story that implicates Henry Kissinger in Lucas’ drug ring, and another that places the site of one of the most important meetings in Harlem drug history in the lingerie department of Henri Bendel’s on 57th Street. It also adds the story of Richie Roberts, the man who eventually prosecuted Lucas for his crimes but who doesn’t warrant a single mention in Jacobson’s piece.
That’s fine in theory. And it certainly allows “American Gangster” to explore the “cop/criminal” dynamic that has fueled so many good recent cop movies, from Michael Mann’s “Heat” to John Woo’s “Hard Boiled” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” as well as David Simon’s television masterpiece, “The Wire.” Lucas and Roberts who never meet until the end of the film live on opposite sides of the law with similar sets of problems: both are outcasts, both are loyal to their family and friends above almost everything else, both are underestimated by their superiors, both are discriminated against (Lucas for his skin color, Roberts for his Judaism). To blurry the boundaries between good and bad further, a great deal of time is spent on the men and their respective home lives, and see how a bad person could be a good husband and vice versa.
The problem in execution is that “American Gangster” doesn’t add anything new to the dialogue between the cop and criminal archetypes. It’s not as pensive as “Heat,” not as dynamic as “Hard Boiled,” not as sardonic as “The Departed.” And at almost three hours in length it’s too long and sluggishly paced to work as a thriller, and too short to attain the complexity of a work like “The Wire.” (If you’re going to spend three hours on this movie, you may as well just spend nine more and watch any season of “The Wire” instead). It doesn’t help that this movie was essentially made once before, in period, with a good deal more verve and grit as 1972’s “Across 110th Street.” This underappreciated blaxploitation-era gem shares plenty with “American Gangster” including its title song and surpasses it, in the intricacy of the dynamic between the police and the crooks, in the quality and quantity of blistering action sequences, and in the sweaty desperation of the characters. Plus it never tries to pass off the Williamsburg Bridge as somewhere in New Jersey.
All this comparison is a long-winded way of suggesting that there isn’t much else to do while watching “American Gangster” than compare it to other films in its genre. Certainly the acting is good with Washington and Crowe, even when all else fails you can at least count on that (see “Virtuosity”). But despite having that vivid Jacobson article as a source, Steven Zaillian’s script does little more with the Lucas character than turn him into a Harlem Tony Soprano. Roberts, with his rigid moral code in the workplace and disastrous home life, looks an awful lot like Crowe’s Officer White from “L.A. Confidential.”
Director Ridley Scott always gets a good handle on the style of whatever period he’s recreating in his films, and “American Gangster” is no exception; supporting actor John Hawkes in particular looks like he just stepped out of a time machine from the set of a John Holmes films. But his grasp on the fundamentals of storytelling are a little shakier. Slow and repetitive, “American Gangster” doesn’t provide half the entertainment value of Jacobson’s lengthy article. And it’s a lot cheaper and quicker to just read the article.
“American Gangster” opens November 2nd.