The most and least that can be said for American Gangster is that its watchable. The true tale of the rise and fall of a Harlem drug lord in the 70s is very nicely photographed, very well upholstered and very attractively costumed. Its eyewash of the first order, made by professionals and backed by Hollywood millions. And its a good thing that it looks so nice because in terms of telling a story or talking about race, money, America or anything else, it whiffs every shot it takes.
There could have been a movie in the parallel stories of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who overtook the mafia selling high-grade heroin at rock-bottom prices, and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the semi-virtuous cop who tries to ferret him out, but you would have needed minds far more complex than those of Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian.
The Euro trash director and the Milquetoast screenwriter are about as far away from the experiences being depicted as you can possibly get, but the bigger problem is that theyre not very sophisticated thinkers, grappling with concepts that are totally beyond them. Every time the movie inches towards an insight on the slippery nature of values within capitalism, it smacks you over the head with some obvious cliché. Every time it suggests the fluid nature of their heroes virtue, it freaks out and gives you something unambiguous. And though it clearly worships at the shrine of grungy 70s copncorruption movies, Scotts civilised polish constantly reveals him for the pretender that he is.
You can watch this thing, and you might even enjoy it, but you also might feel slightly annoyed that instead of the devastatingly great movie that it could have been they turned in the pompous Hollywood message movie everybody expected. (Universal)