It's an understatement to say that the ‘dream team’ of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe owed us. Yes, they gave us Gladiator but they followed that up with A Good Year, the sort of cliche-ridden, Englishman abroad dross that makes Robin Askwith movies look like 1970s Woody Allen, run through with a line of twee that made The Waltons look like The Sopranos.
So, while you can’t imagine the duo adding Denzel Washington to the mix 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. And it's a bigger relief to tell you that it more than holds up to a second viewing on DVD.
All memories of A Good Year are quickly eradicated with a pre-credit sequence of Frank Lucas (Washington) covering someone in petrol, torching them and casually lighting his cigar as he watches them burn; 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 — and there's an additional 18 minutes in the unrated extended cut — 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.
EXTRAS *** It may seem churlish to criticise the extras when there's so many good things here, from that extended cut to assorted documentaries, via a good director and writer commentary (albeit only on the theatrical version). The problem is the first 'making of' featurette features the real Roberts and Lucas briefly discussing their friendship. Roberts cheerily admits that, as good a friend as Frank is, he can never forget what Frank did and you really want to learn more. Instead though, you get the standard behind-the-scenes gossip of the problems you get on 'period' shoots. It's interesting enough but compared to the real story? It's fluff. You want to know how Frank adjusted to life after prison, not how it was hard finding 1970s jeans. What's there is good, but what isn't there would have been more interesting.