Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington lose their heads in American Gangster

American Gangster is heavier than the Godfather-lite rep it’s been getting saddled with. If I had to call it anything -lite, I’d say it’s a low calorie version of The Wire, the show that spoiled television for me. It’s more than the presence of Idris Elba (The Wire‘s Stringer Bell), it’s the evenhanded look at the criminals and the cops, and thus society as it radiates out from them.

American Gangster would like to see its dual protagonists, played by cinematic titans Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, as emblematic Vietnam-War-era Americans. Washington’s Frank Lucas is a family man, a capitalist, and a sangfroided killer. Crowe’s Richie Roberts is a self-improving, priggishly honest philanderer. If I have any issues with Steve Zaillian’s generally excellent script, it is that these emblems rarely seem to have based on real people, which they actually were. They are uncirculated coins, lacking the scruffs and nicks that life confers.

Comparisons to The Wire and The Godfather are unfair. American Gangster is tremendously acted, directed and shot. It tells a great story and has a handful of truly edge-of-seat suspense scenes. It is epic; thus it dragged at times because it never caught me on fire.

There was a glimmer, at the end, when I wondered for a moment if Richie truly was the Serpico he’d been made out to be, or whether he’d been true to his neighborhood cosa nostra buddies all along, targeting Frank to get him out of the way. Was Richie the American Gangster and Frank the true hero, the one who kept Harlem safe?

This sort of heads-to-tails reversal was the engine of one recent cops-and-robbers movie which will be remembered when American Gangster is just another creature in Ridley Scott’s genre menagerie. That movie was called The Departed, and it won Best Picture last year. The Departed, for all its shagginess, had the alacrity of vision to peer into the dark heart of gangsters, and the lawmen who stalk them. Irish Gangster, it might have been called, if it needed an adjective. But it didn’t; an adjective just colors your view of the criminal world. There is nothing uniquely American, Irish or Panamanian about sanctimonious morality or unchecked greed.

Do I blame American Gangster for over-reaching? No. That’s just the filmmakers being uniquely American.