In an August 2000 profile in New York magazine, one-time Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas boasts that his heroin was so potent that it induced autofellatio. (And when “people saw that, they knew that shit was good.”) While we all figure that one out, there’s American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s torpid account of the self-styled all-businessman’s empire-building and his pursuit by proportionately principled Jersey cop Richie Roberts.
Character signposts are hammered home over the film’s twin-taled, kingpin-sized runtime. Carolina transplant Lucas (Denzel Washington) is ruthless, disciplined and dedicated to conservative menswear; his smack kills, but he’s a hard-working, trailblazing entrepreneur who loves his momma (and employs his brothers). Underdog Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a stubborn investigator in a police den of thieves; his disgust with corruption steels him for his crusade against Lucas.
Donning a mantle well-worn even before Coppola dubbed The Godfather a metaphor for capitalism, American Gangster glamorizes Lucas as a captain of industry who got his through business ethic, not flash. Well, not exactly: the fire blown into the cliché embers here is Washington’s seductive megawatt confidence, from 116th Street to the poppyfields of Thailand (smuggling via U.S. Army coffins). But his Lucas must hit Machiavellian talking points between spikes of calculated brutality. Meanwhile, putative investigator Roberts takes 95 minutes of runtime before asking “Who is this guy?”
Somehow the fact that Jay-Z, inspired by a sneak preview, has returned to record a tribute album, seems entirely apt for this handsomely mounted display of well-rehearsed ironies and insights. Years later, the rivalries of Lucas’s world stay alive in different form: shadowing Gangster’s release is Mr. Untouchable, a documentary about big-pimping dealer Leroy Barnes.