It would be something of an understatement to say that the ‘dream team’ of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe owed us. Yes, sure, they gave us Gladiator which was good but then they also gave us A Good Year, and that was bad. And twee. As in really bad and really twee. As in Norbit-meets-Last-of-the-Summer-Wine. And that, my friends, is bad.
So, while you can’t imagine the two of them adding Denzel Washington to the formula and still buggering it up to that level, it’s a relief to report that American Gangster, a 1970s, based-on-a-true-story crime drama, is about as good as anything as Scott and Crowe have ever done, either individually or together. All memories of A Good Year are eradicated by a pre-credit sequence of Frank Lucas (Washington) covering someone in petrol and torching them with his cigar: twee this most certainly isn’t. It’s a simple, almost dialogue-free introduction that speaks volumes: Denzel is the bad guy and it’s hard to shake that sadistic image of him, even as he charms his way through the rest of the film, generally staying one step removed from the violence that’s the backbone of his drugs business.
Lucas stepped into the breach when his boss died, creeping into power virtually under the radar of rival gangs and the police. A clever and ambitious man, Lucas bypassed the usual drugs suppliers, went straight to the Far East, found a few corrupt soldiers and shipped drugs on official US military planes. This meant that he could flood the market with a better quality and cheaper product than his rivals could dream of, leading to money and power – and, inevitably, the attention of untouchable cop Richie Roberts (Crowe). While other cops — most notably the slimeball played by busiest-man-in-Hollywood Josh Brolin — enjoy the bribes, Roberts raison d’etre is justice. Ironically, his ethical beliefs mirror those of Lucas, giving the film its vast and impressive shades-of-grey centre. This is not Ridley Scott, the action director. This is Ridley Scott, the filmmaker, who’s discovered a previously-little-known flair for character.
American Gangster is not a fast moving thriller. It certainly has its moments — a raid on one of Lucas’ factories, for example — but generally the joys are to be found in the interplay and Scott’s confidence in his subject and cast. If this suggests dull and slow-moving, you’d be wrong. It may run over two-and-a-half hours but you’ll barely notice it passing. This is exemplary filmmaking from a confident director, two of the best leading men in Hollywood and a screenplay of enormous quality from Steve ‘Schindler’s List’ Zaillian.