Some non-American whose name I can't remember and probably couldn't spell even if I did once said America's two best contributions to the world were jazz and crime stories.
He said this before "The Simpsons" existed, so I'm sure he'd revise his opinion now, but he'd still be right on about the crime stories.
In fact, we're so good at them we sometimes try too hard to make them special extra good, the way the trailers for "American Gangster" made it out to be "Black American Dream Godfather."
Thankfully, it's not as hamfistedly political and thematic as its previews suggested, but neither does it manage to find much in its unusual setting that hasn't already been done a lot better in a lot of different movies before it.
Denzel Washington's a bit player in the Harlem drug trade, the driver, bodyguard and gopher to the main man, Bumpy Johnson. Johnson's a modern-day Robin Hood whose strength keeps his territory in order, and when he dies, any number of minor thugs fight to take up the scraps.
Pushed around by local crook Idris Elba, Washington flies himself out to Bangkok, the source of the mountains of heroin flowing into the Vietnam War. With no middlemen, Washington's able to put purer product on the street for a price so low he soon holds more sway over the "horse" trade than his mentor ever did.
Washington tries to keep a low profile, upbraiding his brothers and cousins whenever they stir up trouble or when they dress up in the kind of '70s flash so cool even nuns wish the decade had never ended, but he's not immune to the attention-grabbing temptations of sudden riches (and who would be when they look that good in a chinchilla-fur coat). Pressured on one side by honest cops such as Russell Crowe's anti-drug unit and corrupt ones such as Josh Brolin who want their cut of the profits, and on the other by Harlem rivals and a jealous mafia, it's only a matter of time before Washington's crew starts to show some cracks.
"American Gangster" captures the look of the '70s so perfectly that despite the fact I wasn't alive for any of it I can say with utter certainty Ridley Scott hired a team of time-wizards to send his cameras back into the past. Washington's performance is unsettling; powerful and charismatic, it's easy to get awed by him until his anger bursts into sudden violence. With 157 minutes of run time, his rise and fall over the span of nearly a decade unfurls at a pace that never feels rushed or jumpy.
All that time to build the story just makes it all the more frustrating that nobody else's character ever really registers. Crowe does his part well, but his part is exactly the same kind of "great cop, terrible at relationships" type we've seen from Sipowicz to Mackey to McNulty.
Perhaps that's the way Crowe's real-life counterpart rolled (the movie's based on a true story), yet the big benefit of being able to make things up is you can make them more interesting than what really happened. I mean, I don't know about you, but the parts of my real life that aren't spent writing earth-shatteringly important movie reviews would need some serious rewrites to make for a compelling script. Washington's wife's role doesn't accomplish anything besides making me sad I'll never date anyone like her; Crowe's crew includes the RZA and John Hawkes from "Deadwood" and they don't get to do anything cooler than stare at photos of criminals. With no recognizable personality, their ups and downs aren't easy to care about.
The movie's dramatic tension also takes a stern beating from the way all of its revelatory scenes are so incredibly predictable. Have these types of scenes been done a jillion times before, or is it something in the way they're shot that gives away what's about to happen with such precision that if you were the type of person who actually gets to go to movies with friends, you would be able to turn to those friends and annoy them to the point where they would no longer be your friends by guessing exactly how the rest of the sequence will play out? I don't know the answer to that. I'm not entirely certain what I just asked. I just know it was a letdown to always know what was coming before I saw it.
"American Gangster" feels like a movie a talented director would make if his only exposure to crime came from other crime movies. Epic in its way, and at times a fascinating snapshot of an era, its only moment that feels original and surprising is its last one, when Washington looks out on a world that may not have been possible without his force of will.