The cadaver connection

Heroin kingpin Frank Lucas was taken down, in part, by an intense series of  staring contests.

Heroin kingpin Frank Lucas was taken down, in part, by an intense series of staring contests.

Rated 3.0

Denzel Washington goes the bad-guy route again in Ridley Scott’s snazzy yet unsteady American Gangster. As usual, when Denzel occupies a movie he’s the primary reason to see it, but Scott’s capturing of late ‘60s and early ‘70s Harlem is impressive, and having Russell Crowe in the mix certainly helps matters. Ultimately, the teaming of the three cinema giants is simply passable, uneven entertainment and not much more.

Washington plays Frank Lucas, the infamous American heroin dealer who made millions by cutting out the middleman, getting his drugs straight from Southeast Asia and selling them from a tenement factory in Harlem. He used military transports to get drugs into the country, hiding them inside the coffins of dead soldiers.

Scott parallels the story of Lucas’ rise to kingpin power with that of detective Richie Roberts (Crowe), a semi-virtuous cop in a sea of corruption. Roberts’ calling card among his fellow policeman is that he turned in nearly $1 million in unmarked bills found in a botched drug deal, making him stupid in their eyes. While Roberts might see himself as virtuous, he does play baseball with mobsters, sleep around on his beleaguered wife (Carla Gugino) and possesses a pretty mean-assed temper.

As we see Lucas’ empire build, we witness Richie going from a grunt cop to the head of a secret drug task force looking to take down the big guys. Washington’s Lucas is a conflicted man, buying his old mother (Ruby Dee) a mansion and employing his family, while committing cold-blooded, in-the-light-of-day murders in the streets.

Washington won an Oscar for Training Day, a film where he played a cop without a trace of good in him. Even his radiant smile conveyed evil with no bounds. This time out, Washington portrays a somewhat likeable man, making him all the more chilling when he commits violent crimes, like smashing a partygoer’s head in a piano. His performance and Scott’s direction managed to keep me off balance the entire time.

The same can be said for Crowe, who plays a man determined to do some good. He has to because he’s spent a lifetime screwing over the people close to him. In a stunning courtroom scene, his wife blasts him because being a good cop means he basically gets a pass for being a lousy husband and father. It’s one of the film’s most powerful moments.

Police corruption is represented best by Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin, getting a lot of good work this year). Trupo is the very definition of “grease ball,” and Brolin makes him a memorable baddie. This follows Brolin’s turns as the sickening zombie doctor in Planet Terror and the questionable cop in In the Valley of Ellah. Brolin is having a banner year and certainly isn’t afraid to show his ugly side. Next up for Brolin: a troubled lawman in the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men.

The film is more than two hours and 30 minutes long, but I actually left it feeling a little shortchanged. My gut feeling is that the movie needed to be a little darker and meaner, but Scott chooses to wrap the film up with a tidy, abbreviated ending. It’s a funny thing when such a long movie feels incomplete, but that is very much the case with American Gangster.

The finale feels too tidy, and smells of copout. Captions are used to show us Lucas’s jail-time fate, and the fact that Roberts, who became a lawyer, actually defended him. That’s a movie in itself, and Scott’s informing of these facts with nothing but quick captions during a montage feels like a tease. Showing Frank going to jail would’ve sufficed.

Still, you are getting great performances from Washington and Crowe, with a good-looking piece of direction from Scott. American Gangster might not equal the sum of its parts, but it is still a decent piece of moviemaking.