If there's one thing I hope people take away from seeing "American Gangster," the latest epic film from professional epic-film churner Ridley Scott, it's that snitching isn't always a bad thing.
With the bevy of rappers preaching the importance of not squealing to the cops under any circumstances, I'd figure we would get a new generation of kids with morals and ethics just as dubious, questionable and just plain jacked-up as the MCs they listen to.
It's funny that for a musical genre filled with artists who have been inspired by the Harlem gangsters and drug lords of yesteryear, most of them have forgotten how the major players (the ones who are still alive and out of the game, that is) have survived: snitching.
That's what famed Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas did. To be specific, he snitched on the corrupt law-enforcement officials who ran a bigger drug-trafficking operation than he did in the '70s, before getting sent up the river himself.
Nevertheless, Lucas' partial squealing is the top-of-the-world-ma! moment of "Gangster," where Lucas is portrayed with black-and-proud cool by Denzel Washington. It's an ironic, almost hilarious climax for a gangster movie. Instead of going out in a bullet-riddled blaze of glory, Lucas quietly cooperates, working with the same cops who took him down. For the viewer, the iconic image of the fearless, untouchable gangster is deflated. Some may even be disappointed.
Unfortunately, a moment that subversive is rare in "Gangster," a movie whose common, bland title practically lets viewers know of the familiar territory they'll be visiting. Clumsily plotted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian, the movie takes about an hour to get going. The first half spends more time than it should establishing not only Lucas' rise from loyal valet to legendary old-school gangster Bumpy Johnson (a brief Clarence Williams III) to ruthless drug lord, shipping Southeast Asian heroin in the coffins of dead Vietnam soldiers, but also the story of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the New Jersey cop who eventually took down Lucas.
A good cop with bad-boy vices (he loves the ladies a bit too much), Roberts becomes a police pariah when he finds nearly a million dollars and turns it in, turning his equally alienated partner (a John Oates-looking John Ortiz) into a desperate junkie and setting the wheels in motion for his crackdown.
With Scott giving us a view of late '60s/early '70s New York that's more polished than grungy, "Gangster" is partially penetrating. The second half does crackle, as Crowe's cop assembles a motley crew of investigators and starts to realize that drug trafficking doesn't begin and end with the Mafia. Scott and Zaillian want to be good little boys and have a mob movie that doesn't glamorize the gangster lifestyle. In doing so, they make Lucas out to be the only black drug kingpin who ruled his empire with a CEO's conservative meticulousness. While everybody else acted like showboating thugs, he was always business first. He brings his family from North Carolina to help run his business, literally knocking them into next week when they don't present themselves with the same dignity and respect he does. (It's here where Scott highlights Lucas' twisted, misplaced sense of pride and achievement, becoming an independent, successful entrepreneur -- all at the expense of killing his own people.)
But, by treading lightly, "Gangster" becomes a crime epic that's as dry and achromatic as the Harris Savides cinematography. By visualizing Lucas' life as less intense and dangerously exciting than even the real Lucas has said it was ("Gangster" is based on a 2000 New York article on Lucas' king-of-the-world years), "Gangster" is more glum than glam. For the most part, "Gangster" concentrates on the singular drives of Washington's and Crowe's characters, who despite being on opposite sides of the law, live by the same ethical drive.
And with that, "Gangster" shows how Washington's and Crowe's star wattage can be too distracting even for the movie they're starring in. We all know that Washington and Crowe are great actors, and they are certainly the center of attention in every scene. Washington plays Lucas with dapper authority, ready to burst into fits of rage when the world he built with his two hands gets slightly threatened. Crowe is all slobby, fidgety integrity, Prince Valiant in a rumpled Hawaiian shirt.
But even as Scott surrounds them with decent actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Carla Gugino) and rappers who can be decent actors (Common, T.I., RZA), it's still all about Washington and Crowe. (I have a theory that the only reason they chose to star in the notoriously troubled "Gangster" was so that Washington and Crowe can publicly say they were in a respectable movie together, other than the last film they were in, the forgettable 1995 film "Virtuosity.") The supporting cast doesn't so much act as gravitate. Only Ruby Dee, as Lucas' mom, manages to briefly take the spotlight away from Washington in one pivotal scene.
Of course, when Washington and Crowe finally share the same screen near the end, it's a quietly electric scene. Both men practically complement each other's talents through their performances. It's a moment that almost makes the 21/2 hours of mixed messages and pulpy passableness you just sat through all worthwhile.
That, and the snitching part.