Based on a true-story; ‘American Gangster’ is mostly a reliable and easy-to-watch drama about a Harlem crime syndicate in the 1970s; and an honest cop’s journey catching them. It stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe; and is directed by legendary film-maker Ridley Scott. The performances are seemingly high-calibre and direction first-class. Most points of the film evolve naturally; and it takes you right into the characters’ world. However, this says more about the polished direction rather than the whimsical and contrived story which aims for a nicely packaged ending.
Following the death of his employer and mentor, Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas (Washington) establishes himself as the number-one importer of heroin in Harlem. Lucas cunningly buys heroin directly from the source in South East Asia during the Vietnam War; and he devises a clever strategy of smuggling the narcotics into the United States; making his stash the most superior product available in Harlem.
Lucas proceeds to establish an alliance with the New York Mafia to ensure his position as Harlem king-pin. Meanwhile, there is a dedicated and honest cop; Richie Roberts (Crowe) who heads up a joint narcotics task force with the help of the Federal government to target Lucas’s crime syndicate and take him down.However, Roberts has his own problems - battling a crippling divorce, corrupt police colleagues, and his penchant for the ladies. Roberts has enough to keep him busy, not to mention passing the bar (studying law at night-school). Moreover, Roberts and Lucas (Washington) both survived to tell their tales to Hollywood.
The problem is that there is something missing from the story; something that leaves the viewer questioning. In today’s climate, audiences want more than warm-fuzzys and happy-packaged endings. And that’s all this film can offer; nothing but smoke and mirrors.
Although this film had some dark subject matter; it is little wonder why the Oscars were awarded to films that had more depth, more grit, more realism, and more truth. ‘American Gangster’ is good, but just isn’t that good.