Like a child of great privilege, "American Gangster" comes to us with the most distinguished set of creators in years. Directed by Ridley Scott (everything from "Alien" to "Blade Runner" to "Thelma and Louise"), written by Steven Zaillian ("The Falcon and the Snowman," "Schindler's List"), working from a true story, and featuring two of the most charismatic actors ever to grace a screen and playing against each other (Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe), the film dramatically is like an endless series of episodes that never add up to more than a moment's impact.
In between looking at my watch and wondering why I was so uninvolved, I watched the story of Frank Lucas (played by Washington), who took over the drug trade in Harlem from the Italians ("110th to 155th, river to river," he tells us) - something that no black had ever done before - by going to Thailand's Golden Triangle himself, arranging for direct shipment of heroin ("cutting out the middleman"), bringing it in in military transport planes and selling it on the streets for less than the competition. "It's the American way," he points out.
At the same time, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an honest cop who early on finds a stash of almost a million dollars in unmarked bills and - gasp - turns it in instead of keeping it for himself, is picked to lead a group of detectives assigned to stop the drug traffic in Harlem. At first they think it's still being run by the Italians, but eventually come to realize that it's all Frank Lucas.
The contrast between the two men - suave, groomed, understated Lucas and scruffy striver Richie Roberts, studying for the bar, losing custody of his son, digging grimly for any opening in the case - is well done. But as we watch Lucas move so smoothly, bringing his brothers up from North Carolina to work in his business, putting his mother (Ruby Dee) in a mansion of her own, marrying a beautiful Puerto Rican woman, and, oh yes, killing anyone who puts him in danger, somehow the tension seeps out of the film. It's as though Zaillian, the screenwriter, having created the two opposed leads, has lost track of what would hold our attention and ratchet up the pressure as we watch the two come closer and closer together.
I don't want to say that "American Gangster" is a bore, or a failure; it's not at all. Scene after scene has power and, dare I say it, even beauty, as we watch the smooth Frank Lucas move through life and the drug business. Denzel Washington is, as always, compelling and attractive on the screen. And the grubby, shabby Richie Roberts, whom Russell Crowe plays against his own charisma, is fine; but once that's established, there's just no place for them to go.
The film has subplots - a crooked detective (Josh Brolin in a wonderful performance) and his own gang who try to bleed Frank, and a third-billed Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Dirty Pretty Things," "Red Dust") as, I believe, Lucas's right-hand man, who apparently had every scene but one left on the cutting room floor. But there is one brilliant moment in the film, and that is when Washington and Crowe end up across from each other in a very small room; the two great actors, just sitting and talking, make up for everything that failed before. It's the most compelling scene of all. If only the rest of the film were that good.