Frank Lucas, the subject of Ridley Scott's new film "American Gangster," is an archetypal antihero. Born to a poor North Carolina family in 1930, Lucas amassed a fortune dealing heroin by enlisting returning soldiers to smuggle the drug back from Vietnam. Scott's film tells his story with virtuosic style and a superb cast, but without wholly throwing off the onus of over-familiarity.
The film benefits greatly from Denzel Washington's powerful lead performance as Lucas, whose skill and charisma as a performer help realize screenwriter Steve Zaillan's conception of Lucas as a queasily attractive, even admirable figure. The story begins in a 1960s Harlem, where the white mobsters and cops expect tribute from African-American criminals, including Lucas's ganglord mentor Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III). When Lucas strikes out on his own to take over the heroin trade, Zaillan depicts him only somewhat ironically as a black entrepreneur breaking the white stranglehold over a market.
"Gangster" sometimes veers into conventional crime-film territory, but Scott at least has the backing of an excellent cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lucas's loyal, naïve younger brother, Josh Brolin as a corrupt, imperious cop and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Lucas's flamboyant rival Nicky Barnes. Against these fairly broad performances, Washington underplays Lucas's implacable ambition, thereby occupying the still center of the film.
Russell Crowe takes the film's other main role as Richie Roberts, the abrasive, honest narcotics detective who first targeted Lucas. He's ideal for the role and holds his own against Washington, but the character is too typical of Crowe's specialty in portraying angry white guys to register as strongly as Lucas does. In Crowe's scenes, "Gangster" becomes a well-done but conventional cop thriller.
Elsewhere, the film aspires to historical significance, presenting Lucas as a distorted mirror image of an era of black empowerment. Scott's direction does the most to support these sometimes strained epic pretensions. As a filmmaker, he has always shown the most interest and enjoyed the most success in creating exotic, decadent worlds, ranging from the futuristic Los Angeles of "Blade Runner" to the medieval panorama "Kingdom of Heaven." He recreates the dilapidated New York City of "Gangster" as thoroughly and enthusiastically as he did the imperial Rome of "Gladiator," while brief side trips to Vietnam's bustling marketplaces, army camps and opium fields help the film feel more like a period epic and less like a "Scarface" retread.
Harris Savides's wintry cinematography bleaches out the color and any attendant nostalgia from Scott's sets, undermining the audience's vicarious enjoyment of Lucas's high-flying lifestyle.
Like last year's "The Departed," "American Gangster" is a pulp crime thriller designed to break out of its genre's ghetto and find wide audiences and mainstream acceptance. It certainly has my recommendation as a great Friday's night entertainment. But those who enjoy the film are also advised to seek out the films "Gangster" draws on, such as "Prince of the City," "Heat" and "The French Connection." Where "Gangster" falls short of these films is in convincing us that it has anything new to say about fascinating, destructive figures like Lucas, beyond slyly suggesting that they may best embody our culture's values.