Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" announces, with its grandiose title and epic sweep, that it wants to take its place among the "Godfathers" and "Scarfaces" as a seminal chronicle of criminal royalty. If it fails, it's not for lack of trying. It's based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a cool, brilliant, ambitious sharecropper's son from North Carolina who worked his way to the top of the New York drug trade in the 1970s. Unlike his great Harlem competitor, Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Lucas cut out the white middlemen—i.e., the Mafia. The Vietnam War was on, and Lucas got his heroin direct from the source in Southeast Asia, shipping his goods home on military planes in the coffins of American soldiers. His product, Blue Magic, outsold his rivals' because it was purer and cheaper. It was also deadlier.
Scott's movie, written by Steve Zaillian, regards the control-freak Lucas—a figure of dapper, understated elegance and lethal viciousness—with a mixture of awe and fear. There's nothing new about a gangster movie that both glamorizes and condemns its hero (a certain hypocrisy is built into the genre), but "Gangster" further hedges its bets by making the corrupt white cops (led by Josh Brolin's loathsome Detective Trupo) far more odious than Lucas. It doesn't try to soft-pedal the human cost of Lucas's success—grisly images of dead junkies abound. But at the same time it posits the pusher as a triumphant example of black capitalism, the first African-American to get the Mafia to work on his terms. This tricky moral balancing act may be one reason "American Gangster" never fully ignites: it's a movie that's always watching its own shadow.
Lucas's story is crosscut with that of his pursuer, the scruffy, womanizing, legendarily honest cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who's put in charge of the NYPD's drug unit. As charismatic as Crowe is, the cop's story can't compete with the crook's. You have to wait until the end for these two stars to share a scene, and when they do team up as odd-couple crimebusters, it seems to belong to another movie.
For all its grit, style and atmosphere, "Gangster" never sweeps you away. It has neither the lurid bravado of De Palma's "Scarface" nor the intimate grasp of the criminal lifestyle you find in Scorsese or Coppola. You stay with it because of Washington's commanding presence. He gives us a man whose eyes miss nothing, and his fire-and-ice performance demands we watch him with the same rapt attention. There's a great story here, but it feels like "American Gangster" hasn't been mined for all its riches.