Remember how oh-my-god cool it was to hear, all those years back, that Michael Mann, with his movie Heat, was gonna get Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together onscreen for the first time? And then they were hardly together at all except for that one scene, but it turned out to be okay because that one scene was incredible?
American Gangster is like that, except it’s got the combustible combination of Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington onscreen together for the first time. Even if they were actually onscreen together for the first time the same year as Heat (1995) in that bit of sci-fi nonsense, Virtuosity, no one talks about that movie, and no one would have remembered it if I hadn’t brought it up in the first place. So forget I even mentioned it.
So: Ridley Scott’s American Gangster brings together Crowe and Washington, both of whom stalk the screen, as they always do, as if The Movies were invented for them, and how freakin’ explosive can it be to smash these guys into each other? Except they don’t get the opportunity to face off onscreen until more than two hours into the film’s two-hour-and-forty-minute runtime … and that’s fine. Why? Because their concurrent stories run parallel and keep you in a state of constant suspense and dread: You forget that the necessities of plot and the conventions of Hollywood narrative require that their two stories eventually collide in Scott’s masterful back-and-forth, which is riveting enough to, ironically, make the crash seem inevitable in a way that is not demanded by cliché but is a function of certain sort of fated irony.
Irony is all over this movie in the most confounding and, ahem, ironically, the most satisfying way, a way that makes you want to shake your head at the paradox of it while also acknowledging its truth. American Gangster is one of those films that, the more you think about it, the more you feel like you’re falling down Alice’s rabbit hole into a world where the rules work but they piss you off because it seems like if the world were good and decent, they wouldn’t.
The world is not good and decent, perhaps — might go the theme of Gangster — but sometimes people are, and sometimes only accidentally.
Crowe’s Richie Roberts is a New Jersey cop, a rough-edged working-class guy who’s trying to better himself by studying law in night school. His colleagues already think he’s “better” than he needs to be: He’s scorned as a “boy scout” for actually following the laws he’s upholding. But he’s also a cocky bastard who hangs out with a childhood friend who’s now a mafioso; Oh, and he’s kinda mean to his ex-wife and kinda ignores his kid. When he stumbles onto Frank Lucas’s criminal endeavors, he latches onto the case like a bulldog and won’t let go until he brings Lucas down.
Washington’s Frank Lucas was a driver and general dogsbody to the godfather of Harlem, until the godfather died and Frank, looking to better himself, took over the operation. He comes up with a scheme for racheting up his drug business by eliminating the middle man and importing heroin directly from Thai suppliers; his business and marketing acumen is astonishing, and before long he’s selling junk twice as good as anything on the street at half the price. It’s the American dream of entrepreneurship, of making customers happy — really happy, in this case — while raking in the dough. It’s win-win. Oh, Frank is utterly ruthless and won’t hesitate to put a bullet in the brain of anyone who steps on his toes, but he believes himself a gentleman, and he is, in his own perverse way. He’s even good to his mother.
This is all based on a true story that went down in the early 1970s — Frank and Richie are real; the now elderly Lucas actually worked as a consultant on the film. However, the ring of truth comes not from its factualness, but from Steven Zaillian’s brilliant script, which highlights in what wickedly different directions such qualities as persistence and dedication can take people. Truth comes also from Scott’s production, which is committed to authenticity. Scott shot in real, unfakeable New York City and Thai locations — no Toronto or Hawaii stand-ins here — and Zaillian (along with Crowe and Washington) created in the cinematic Richie and Frank two fascinatingly contradictory and complicated men. You can’t entirely hate Frank, for all his terribleness, and you can’t entirely like Richie, for all his virtues. And you can’t forget them.