The expansive new mob drama American Gangster stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Fresh Air's film critic says it's a whopping overdose of perverse '70s nostalgia, a panoramic portrait of a nation disintegrating from moral rot.
But the charismatic real-life monster who inspired the film — a druglord who exults in his scams and brags about his murders — has become so controlled, and domesticated, that even with Washington's star power, he doesn't carry the movie. Crowe, credible as an obsessed detective, helps somewhat. But ultimately the movie feels like Scarface drained of blood, at arm's length from the culture that spawned it.
A sprawling mob epic that clearly wants to be a Harlem Scarface, Ridley Scott's gangster flick aims high and mostly measures up. Ambitious, engaging and occasionally even gripping, it never adds much to the genre — but it knows how to stroke genre tropes till they tremble.
Denzel Washington is strong and reasonably persuasive as Frank Lucas, a '70s dope king who, if the movie's version of this torn-from-magazine-headlines tale is accurate, got the bright idea of bribing servicemen to fly thousands of pounds of heroin stateside from Vietnam during combat operations, as if the U.S. military was his own personal FedEx.
An initially outmatched narcotics agent (Russell Crowe) struggles to make minor inroads, which eventually lead to a surprisingly big payoff. Director Scott crosscuts between their stories, mining them for ironic parallels — the gangster's a family man, the cop's a deadbeat dad, both men are principled in their divergent ways — and if the result isn't an instant classic, it's never less than engrossing.