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‘American Gangster’(***) Powerhouse film good, but feels strangely hollow

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Posted: Friday, November 9, 2007 10:00 pm

Some movies are destined to be worthwhile. With the right combination of cast, crew and a compelling storyline, certain films are just so pedigreed that it would take a catastrophe of unimaginable proportion to throw the project off track. Back when I first heard about “American Gangster,” I knew it would be such a film.

Directed by Ridley Scott, starring the powerhouse duo of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe (the latter of whom is on my very short list of actors who can do absolutely no wrong) and based on the fascinating true story of the rise and fall of Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, the quality of the film is almost innate. Yet, ultimately, the movie is still somewhat of a disappointment.

On the surface, this is undoubtedly an impressive production: The two leads, incapable of giving anything less than stellar performances, are hypnotic to watch; Scott handles the material like the seasoned veteran that he is; and the script, by “Gangs of New York” screenwriter Steven Zaillian, evokes a keen sense of time and place.

But the movie feels strangely hollow, as though every detail was too meticulously planned out, leaving no room for a genuine sense of suspense or revelation. It feels like deep down, beneath the appearance of raw talent and professionalism, everyone involved is simply going through the motions. They’re keeping their eyes on the Oscar prize without ever pausing to consider that maybe, just maybe, organic storytelling and a deep-rooted realism should trump empty, obsessive sophistication.

Inspired by an article from New York magazine, “American Gangster” offers a vision of the American Dream filtered through Lucas’ tenure as one of the most creative and successful dope pushers this country has ever seen. As played by Washington, Lucas is as cool as they come, with a steely glare that leaves little doubt he’s in control of everything around him. After rising to the top of the New York drug trade following the death of his mentor, mobster Bumpy Johnson, Lucas slowly gains the attention of a New Jersey special investigations unit headed by Richie Roberts (Crowe), a flawed but honest cop who abhors the brand of exploitation and corruption bred by Lucas’ dealings.

Many have voiced concern that “American Gangster” glorifies the admittedly generous Lucas, and indeed, the film seems to paint him as a resourceful entrepreneur whose creative method of smuggling heroin into the U.S. should be admired as a prime example of “outside the box” thinking instead of admonished as a destructive act that killed hundreds if not thousands of drug abusers.

While the film does give lip service to the negative effects of Lucas’ business, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the viewer was meant to see past this man’s indiscretions and embrace the American spirit of ambition that lies beneath. While he may have been the Bill Gates of drug trafficking, Lucas was still a “bad guy” in every sense. And had “American Gangster” taken the time to fully explore the psychology of Lucas’ dual nature and not become bogged down in plot mechanics, it might have emerged as a great film instead of simply a good one.

“American Gangster” is rated R for violence, language, sex, nudity and drug use.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor.

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