Harlem Drug Movie Bites the Dust
Ridley Scott's latest labor, American Gangster, is dominated by Denzel Washington and that is part of its primary problem. With Mr. Washington as the title character—a powerful Harlem thug in fancy threads—with too many tiny roles built around him, there's too little time for the most compelling person: a policeman played by Russell Crowe.

Mr. Crowe, re-teaming with Mr. Scott (Gladiator, A Good Year) and Mr. Washington (Virtuosity), acts rings around his co-star, whose stoic, staccato screen persona finally exhausts itself in this overwrought showcase. Their stories do not intersect for about an hour.

Until then, it's predominantly the tale of Frank Lucas (Mr. Washington), right-hand man to drug thug Bumpy Johnson, who drops dead circa 1968, leaving his turf and toxic stuff to Lucas. Lucas works both like a pro, offering purified drugs at lower prices, making deals, keeping his word and turning Manhattan's poor blacks into walking zombies.

While Mr. Scott shows the effect—in endless close-ups of powder and needles—he minimizes the cause. Lucas the gangster is glorified by default. Drug kingpins like Lucas do run certain city streets and they are treated like royalty, but this dude seems to more or less get away with poisoning an entire population. By implication only, American Gangster underscores that the criminalization of drugs—fired up by President Nixon and backfiring ever since—is as much a propellant of addiction as Prohibition.

But Mr. Scott, who also uses distracting flashbacks, straps the viewer to an unending back and forth between explosive Lucas and Mr. Crowe's straight-arrow cop—ten minutes with the drug lord here followed by brief glimpses of the honest lawman there. Not much comes of the teeter-tottering but a headache from trying to figure out who's who, what's what and why the cryptic plot loiters. Toss in five brothers and a mother—none of whom emerges as authentic—and an utterly pointless Puerto Rican character and it's almost as tedious as Mr. Scott's Kingdom of Heaven.

Mr. Crowe manages to rise above his character's goody-two-shoes name, Richie Roberts, sustaining interest. Honesty and integrity are always more fascinating characteristics than their opposites and, though his decent policeman has the sexual habits of a jackrabbit, Mr. Crowe's character earns more self-made success in a few seconds of detective work than flashy Frank Lucas does in 20 minutes of macho fist-pounding. The cop has a brain and he uses it, something the supposedly brilliant criminal is rarely seen doing.

All of which might have added up to something radical amid the glut of onscreen bottom-feeders: how the low-ranking good guy outsmarts the big shot bad guy. But, of course not—not here, not now. American Gangster follows the Michael Mann/Martin Scorsese tradition of demonstrating that corruption bleeds the best or, more succinctly, that the best ultimately yields to the worst.

As a slice of drug-cult, it's fine, drooping with dark faces and chock full of enough of that campy thug chic to recall Scarface, Goodfellas, The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now (the Vietnam War is practically a character). Carla Gugino (The Lookout) as the cop's wife, Josh Brolin (Melinda and Melinda) as a crooked cop and Armand Assante (Private Benjamin) as a rival gangster pump things up here and there. How much of this based-on-a-true-story is true is anyone's guess.

Mr. Scott nails the connection between faith and force, with scoundrel Lucas literally trying to use religion as his last refuge. Much of American Gangster feels false. From gangsters complaining about the rise of Japanese products in the late Sixties to the insinuation that the United States Army coordinated drug trafficking, the picture suffers in credibility. Hearing characters say things like "aiight" and "y'all know what I sayin'?" making early Seventies Harlem sound like a suburban shopping mall. Whatever happened to "groovy," "dig it" and "cat"?

Once cop and crook are finally in the same plot, American Gangster starts to resemble something other than another reason for Denzel Washington to pair off with a hottie half his age. But, of course not—again. Spoilers aside, the last act fades into oblivion; an excuse for the talented Mr. Washington—who was a human being in The Pelican Brief, Philadelphia, Glory–to knock a cup of coffee into next Tuesday… at the expense of the movie.