AMERICAN GANGSTER (Ridley Scott, 2007)
Free enterprise and old-fashioned hard work carry Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) from a low but trusted spot as a crime boss's driver to the pinnacle of the 1970s New York drug empire in AMERICAN GANGSTER. Frank molds himself into a respected and feared Harlem entrepreneur who gives customers higher quality heroin at a lower price than the competition. He also prefers to maintain a small profile to avoid attracting the attention of law enforcement.
Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is the cop leading a task force to bust up the drug underground, but everywhere he turns, he approaches another dead end. Tracing the familiar organized crime players doesn't lead to the kingpin ruling the market. Richie's rigid code of ethics concerning work places him on the outside of a police community riddled with corruption. He has more in common with Frank, another highly principled man, although Richie is the only one on the right side of the law.
As a showcase for Washington and Crowe, AMERICAN GANGSTER does not disappoint. Washington gives Frank an elegant malevolence while never idealizing his vicious core. Depending on the venue, he can be ruthless or respectable, a combination that makes him more dangerous than his thuggish competitors. With a gleam in his eyes, Washington relishes the opportunity to play the smooth criminal.
Alternately, Crowe's Richie is a frayed bundle of turmoil and integrity, an imperfect man rubbed raw by the standards he observes and fails to meet. Combining bookish sensibility and physicality is one of Crowe's strengths as an actor. In Richie he finds an ideal character who must be capable of outfoxing his opponents in the investigation office and courtroom and outhitting them on the inner city's mean streets.
Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian lay out AMERICAN GANGSTER like dual case studies of the drug trade and narcotics investigation. Frank operates with the brutal efficiency and market awareness that could have made him a tycoon examined in business schools if he had put his energy into legitimate endeavors. It's fascinating to follow the ingenuity responsible for his ascension to and residency at the top. Likewise, the labyrinthine nature of Richie's probe makes for compelling viewing. While tough guy posturing is critical and produces exciting chases and shootouts, sifting through mountains of evidence is where the most important work is accomplished.
The meticulous depiction of the ins and outs of the protagonists' chosen professions tends to squeeze out the human side. Richie's family problems are given short shrift. Frank's domestic situation isn't explained enough to understand why his clan would follow him unquestioningly. Filling in these empty corners would have made this a richer film, but AMERICAN GANGSTER is solely concerned with the promise in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps in dogged pursuit of the American dream. Everything else is secondary. After all, it's just business.