Anyone who attends "American Gangster" hoping to see "The Tony Montana Story, Part II" will leave feeling shortchanged. A strikingly photogenic but lethargic cops and crimelords yarn, it gives us a number of formidable talents -- Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List,"Gangs of New York") -- laboring on a story that never develops the headlong momentum it needs. It's a brooding, serious character study impersonating a crime thriller.
The fact-based story casts Washington as Frank Lucas, longtime driver and enforcer for Harlem vice lord Bumpy Johnson, who ruled the roost from the 1930s to the 1960s. When Bumpy dies after a soliloquy about how hard it is to run a crime operation in an increasingly corporate, shakedown-resistant world, Frank inherits his mantle and unveils ambitious expansion plans.
He informs his underlings that the most important values in running their business are integrity, loyalty and family, and he is a model of restraint and responsibility in his private life, but he consolidates power as ruthlessly as a Borgia. Calling in his sprawling network of brothers, nephews and cousins to staff his operation, Frank begins importing pure Asian heroin on U.S. military aircraft returning from Vietnam. Selling high-purity drugs at discount prices, he quickly outstrips the Mafia as the city's main supplier.
Crowe plays Frank's mirror image, New Jersey police detective Richie Roberts. Richie's personal life is a shambles of custody battles and promiscuity. On the job, however, he is incorruptible. He is so ethical that when he and his partner discover a money drop of nearly $1 million, he insists that they turn it in as evidence. The pair are ostracized by their casually corrupt brother officers, who figure a cop who can't be bought will turn in those who can.
Richie operates in colorful squalor while Frank moves up to penthouses, mansions and elegant custom tailoring. Richie beds an ever-changing roster of flight attendants while Frank begins a storybook marriage to Miss Puerto Rico. At Thanksgiving, Frank serves his extended family a turkey worthy of a jubilant Norman Rockwell feast while Richie eats tuna on Wonder Bread in his undershirt, alone.
What the two do not do is interact. For nearly all of the movie's 157 minutes, neither is aware of the other's existence, and we're denied the pleasure of seeing these two powerhouse actors butt heads. Crowe and Washington move along their separate tracks, muttering plot-thickening dialogue while we yearn for a few jolts of propulsive energy to hurry the tale along. When Scott finally delivers a well-staged raid by Richie on a ghetto drug-processing facility, more than two hours into the movie, it's too late to revive the awkwardly paced narrative.
Even then there is more business to attend to. In an implausible twist, Richie, who has struggled to pass the New Jersey bar exam, appears as the lead prosecutor in Frank's trial, a hugely important case that ought to have been handled by a team of experienced assistant district attorneys. At moments like this, the opening-credits oath that the film is "based on a true story" seems to mean "but we made a lot of it up."
The film's best moments come when Washington cranks up his simmering intensity in confrontations with Josh Brolin as a dirty cop, Armand Assante as a silky mob boss, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as a Harlem rival. Those sequences make you wish there were more than a handful of scenes between him and Crowe, and that the ones Scott does give us kept both actors in the frame rather than alternating between medium shots of each.
You can't help imagining what a crackling good thriller the film could have been in the hands of William Friedkin or Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese. It aims to be "The Departed," but winds up as "The Depleted."
Colin Covert 612-673-7186