VIDEO: The trailer for American Gangster
American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Mark Jacobson’s New York magazine article about ’70s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), is as generic as the title. Here’s how Academy Award–worthy epics are made today: take a great period story, dump period and story, and assemble a pastiche from movies made about similar subjects. Shaft, The Godfather, The French Connection, Prince of the City, even Apocalypse Now — they come and go in this farrago like bits in an Oscar tribute montage. Scott goes so far as to steal from Brian De Palma’s Scarface, itself an imitation of generations of better films. Which makes Gangster a knockoff of a knockoff.
Too bad, because Lucas’s life transcends rehashed conventions and clichés. As recounted in Jacobson’s brief piece, Lucas was born in Jim Crow North Carolina, and one of his earliest memories was of the KKK’s murdering a cousin accused of looking at a white girl. The sole support of his family, he made money stealing chickens and mugging drunks. At the age of 13, he lived with a woman bootlegger. When not much older than that, he headed to New York and through sheer nerve and naïveté earned the affection of mythic gangster “Bumpy” Johnson. Thus his career as one of America’s most successful criminals was launched. It’s a version of the American dream at least as resonant as Don Corleone’s, and with the benefit — or disadvantage — of being true.
None of this makes it into the film, except in fragmentary flashbacks or rueful asides. Instead, Washington’s Lucas springs forth fully formed as the movie version of an African-American criminal genius: ruthless but just; cynical but sentimental; selfish but generous; glowering but affable; always nattily attired. In real life, Lucas’s most outrageous successes were also rude commentaries on American values. He wiped out the heroin competition by producing a product that was better and cheaper — hello, laissez-faire capitalism! He smuggled in dope from Indochina in the coffins of dead soldiers, inadvertently creating a breathtaking metaphor for Vietnam. There’s a subversive rewriting of recent history in there someplace, but Scott wants nothing to do with that, and he manages to tailor his material into a template most viewers will find comfortable.
He also recognizes that no Hollywood movie about a black man is complete unless it’s about a white man. So he taps into Serpico, focusing on Lucas’s nemesis, Richie Roberts. Russell Crowe’s inauthenticity starts with his accent, and Scortt establishes his ethnic credibility by having him wear a star of David around his neck in lieu of a namecard reading “Jew.” For Roberts, Lucas is just a means to get to his real target, corrupt cops in the department. And so American Gangster devolves into another generic movie altogether.
Maybe Scorsese could have come up with an African-American version of GoodFellas, but Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (All the King’s Men) squeeze everything original or cinematic out of the life of Frank Lucas. File this one under “American Oscar Wanna-Be.”