Take a good look at the poster for "Scarface" with that famous black-and-white image of Al Pacino. Now imagine Denzel Washington in the place of Pacino (he even holds a pistol in the same hand) and plop Russell Crowe behind him for good measure, and you have the poster for Ridley Scott's new film, "American Gangster," which was surely no accident.
What Scott didn't seem to notice, however, is "Scarface" is a satire that became a cult hit in recent years not for its satirical content, but rather because audiences have taken it far too literally as some modern urban tragedy. Thankfully for them, Scott has given us a film viewers are free to take as seriously as they like. The audience I saw it with cheered whenever the character Frank Lucas (Washington) excessively injured or killed somebody.
"American Gangster" tells the true story (as the film proudly proclaims) of Lucas, a mob driver in Harlem who quickly rises to the top as a drug kingpin by buying heroin straight from Southeast Asia and smuggling it into the U.S. via the coffins of soldiers who died in Vietnam. Seeking to bring down the whole operation is Richie Roberts (Crowe), a New Jersey detective in way over his head who faces not only the mob but also the corrupt cops who festered in every crevice of New York City from the '60s to the '70s.
It's no surprise the performances are great. Washington and Crowe are among the best lead actors working in Hollywood. Dashing leading man Washington proves adept at playing the charismatic scoundrel, and Crowe portrays a Jersey slob so convincingly that he should be under investigation for stealing the souls of his fellow man. Even better, the cast is rounded out with such diverse talents as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Armand Assante, Ruby Dee, RZA and even Cuba Gooding Jr. in his least cringe-worthy role in centuries.
Such matters of acting and technical skill are not the issue here, as the film is well made and leads up to an exciting climax. Character identification turns out to be the most difficult. Do we identify with drug lord Lucas or Detective Roberts? It's hard not to identify with Lucas' desire for upward mobility for his entire extended family, as the film depicts him as the underdog, yet this is a problem as shown by his flights of extreme violence and the simple fact that he deals in heroin.
Conversely, the film unequivocally depicts Roberts as the hero, facing insurmountable odds to take down a crime boss trafficking heroin at the risk of alienating everyone around him as he turns in his corrupt colleagues. We never question his mission or his methods, which forces Lucas, as likable (at times) as he is, to revert to the role of the villain. And let's face it: Haven't we had enough films where a noble-but-flawed white cop has to take down a violent-but-charismatic black criminal? It's shocking that the two didn't end up killing one another in a blaze of glory, possibly in the rain.