The birth of the blaxploitation genre in the 1970s ushered in a new era of how black characters were portrayed in film, bringing with it a type of hero not seen since the 1930s and 40s, when filmmakers like Oscar Michaeux and Spenser Williams were making movies for the segregated audiences of the day. Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown and Fred Williamson were among the larger than life blaxploitation heroes who thrilled inner-city audiences for close to a decade before the genre seemingly died off. The truth, however, is that blaxploitation never actually died, it just went through a series of transformations over the following decades that saw it re-invented in a variety of incarnations that included everything from the films of Eddie Murphy to "urban" melodramas like Boyz in the 'Hood to recent Oscar-hopefuls like Talk to Me. The most recent manifestation of the blaxploitation flick can be seen in American Gangster, a film that is only removed from the genre by the passage of thirty-plus years, a massive budget, and an A-list of Oscar-winning top talent that lends legitimacy to what is otherwise B-movie exploitation fare.
Inspired by a true story, American Gangster stars Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, an unassuming man who for years served as the driver and bodyguard for Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), the legendary and notorious gangster who ruled Harlem. With the death of Bumpy, every two-bit thug and hustler is looking to become the next godfather. But it is the cold-blooded and calculating Lucas who rises to power through a heroin operation that becomes so large and profitable that even the Mafia has to come to him to be supplied. Running his operation the way the Italians ran theirs, Frank manages to operate under the radar for many years, with few ever suspecting that he is the brains behind one of the biggest drug operations in the country.
On the other side of the law there is Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a deeply flawed cop with a failed marriage and a reputation for honesty so incorruptible hardly anyone wants to work with him. When Roberts stumbles across nearly a million dollars and actually turns it in, he marks himself as the fool of his department. But when a new federal task force is formed to fight drug trafficking, Roberts is the perfect man for the job. Assembling a team of loose cannon cops, Roberts sets out to crack the massive dope operation that has flooded New York with top-grade, affordable heroin--an operation run by Frank Lucas.
American Gangster sees the return of Denzel Washington to the Training Day anti-hero role for which he won his Best Actor Oscar. And like Training Day, American Gangster is little more than a big-budget variation of the much maligned blaxploitation films of the 1970s, only this time around most critics seem to love these films. The same can't be said for films like 1973's Black Caesar, even though American Gangster could have just as easily called itself Black Caesar 2007.
Denzel Washington has managed to build a solid career for himself as one of Hollywood's finest actors. But for every great film like Malcolm X or The Manchurian Candidate, he has also been in some serious crap--like Ricochet and Virtuosity (which also paired him with Russell Crowe). Training Day was a flawed film that didn't know when to end, and while Washington gave a strong performance, it was not nearly his best. The one thing nearly every film starring Washington has in common--good, bad or otherwise--is that he always gives a solid performance. American Gangster, however, is Washington in the closest thing to sleepwalking he's ever done in a role. And that's not to say that he doesn't do a serviceable job, but this certainly is not an actor earning the $40 million Washington got paid for American Gangster. In fact, screen veteran Ruby Dee steals the show in a small supporting role as Frank Lucas' mother, pulling out all the stops with so much power in one scene that the only thing Washington can do is look puny next to her.
Washington's performance in American Gangster is like everything else about the film in that it is serviceable, and at first glance has enough sparkle to fool the audience into thinking it is better than it really is. But under serious scrutiny, American Gangster is not a great film so much as it is a good film that is simply too lazy to be great. The film's biggest weakness comes, oddly enough, from its greatest strength, which is Steven Zaillian's screenplay. Zaillian has written what amounts to two scripts--one about Frank Lucas and the other about Richie Roberts. This is, at least in theory, a great idea, as it tells essentially the same story from two completely different points of view. Rather than have Roberts be a supporting, under-developed character in the story of Lucas, or vice versa, Zaillian's script seeks to strike a balance. And while that balance is found, it sadly comes at the expense of characters that are not fully developed or all that memorable. Instead of wanting to see more of either character, you're left with the feeling that neither character is quite interesting enough to carry an entire film, and that is just not true. In real life, Frank Lucas is as interesting as Goodefellas' Henry Hill, and Richie Roberts is as interesting as Serpico's Frank Serpico--only you wouldn't know that from watching American Gangster because while Zaillian clearly was hoping for a homerun, he barely makes it to second base.
In much the same way Washington never seems to bring his A-game to American Gangster, neither does Russell Crowe. He delivers a bit more than Washington, but when held up next to his work in films like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, this is not even close to being Crowe at his best. Along with Ruby Dee stealing Washington's thunder, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Josh Brolin also manage to work a little magic. With all the spotlight on the Oscar-winning dynamic duo of Washington and Crowe, it would be easy to miss Ejiofor (who has officially become the best actor no one knows) co-starring as Frank's younger brother, and Brolin (who also shines in the upcoming No Country for Old Men) co-starring as a corrupt cop. Ejiofor and Brolin are so good in their roles, it makes you wonder if American Gangster might have been better with them respectively cast as Lucas and Roberts.
Cuba Gooding, Jr. has a small supporting role as Nicky Barnes, the man most commonly thought of as the Godfather of Harlem and the successor to Bumpy Johnson's empire. Barnes served as the partial inspiration for both Tommy Gibbs, Fred Williamson's character in Black Caesar, and Nino Brown, Wesley Snipes' character in New Jack City, as well as being the subject of the new documentary, Mr. Untouchable; but in American Gangster he is a throw-away joke of a character. Gooding plays Barnes as if he is Rod "Show Me the Money" Tidwell on cocaine. It says something profound about American Gangster that one of the most memorable parts of the film is a terrible performance by a bad actor playing a poorly written character.
Directed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster is the same mixed bag of tricks that defines many of the director's other films. With Gladiator, Scott made a movie that had many people creaming their jeans over what they thought was a great film. Truth be told, it was a great looking film, but the script was maudlin at best, especially when compared to Spartacus, which from a story standpoint made Gladiator seem like Death Wish in a toga. The same is true with American Gangster, a great looking film if there ever was one. Scott and his crew do a great job of recreating New York in the late 1960s and 70s. But the production design and visual style are merely smoke and mirrors designed to make an adequate film seem better than it really is. And what American Gangster is, is a film that will never be as good as Goodfellas, or possibly even Casino, no matter how hard it tries. Hell, American Gangster doesn't even hold up to the Hughes Brothers' flawed but superior Dead Presidents, itself a homage to the blaxploitation genre. Likewise, for the millions of dollars that went into the production of American Gangster, it isn't all that much better than Black Caesar, the key difference being Black Caesar was produced for under a million dollars, while American Gangster cost at least one hundred times that amount.
All of this is not to say American Gangster is a bad film, because it is actually decent, and at the very least entertaining. But the film is not as good as many people make it out to be, nor does it ever come close to deserving the praise that is being heaped on it. When all is said and done, American Gangster has everything it needs to be a great film--a modern classic--and somehow it falls short of that mark. Instead, it emerges from beneath a mountain of potential and missed opportunities as a film that is good but not great, entertaining but not memorable.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]