David Simon, the creative force behind HBO's The Wire, once wrote a memo to his boss that argued the merits of his show's deep-focus approach to the problems of drug dealing and law enforcement, claiming that "no one who sees HBO's take on the culture of crime and crime fighting can watch anything like CSI or NYPD Blue or Law & Order again without knowing that every punch was pulled on those shows."
Since Simon wrote this, The Wire has rendered most television crime shows absurdly two-dimensional. But did he ever imagine that his show would cast long, imposing shadows onto the crime movie landscape?
For anyone familiar with The Wire, watching director Ridley Scott's plodding, generic American Gangster is like perusing a child's flip book after reading an epic novel. Seen through cinematographer Harris Savides' grimy, de-saturated urban lens, the film's simplistic police-procedural details, sophomoric political insights, and facile capitalist ironies are nothing more than a collection of garage-sale leftovers from some low-rent screenwriters swap meet.
American Gangster is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a Harlem thug who, inspired by the rise of the big-box retailers in the late 1960s, decides to cut out the middle man and import heroin from Thailand with a little help from his cousin (a spooky Roger Guenveur Smith). As Frank's empire grows, he attracts the attention of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a New Jersey police investigator whose devotion to duty destroys his marriage and draws the concentrated ire of NYPD detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) and his leather gang of Prince of the City goons. These characters sidle around and among each other in a New York/New Jersey crowded with new and leftover consumer goods, garbage, and human casualties from the drug trade.
Aside from implicit storyline comparisons to The Wire, American Gangster has an explicit connection to the show: Former Wire star Idris Elba appears briefly as a rival to Lucas and his expanding empire. Together, Elba and Washington exude gunfighter bravado in a pair of tense street scenes. Yet such pimpalicious behavior is no longer fresh. And is it finally okay to say that Denzel Washington is a tiresome anti-hero? He's been working his calm charm and devil's-advocate verve for quite a while now, but he's one "hooah!" and one more "intense," nobody's-home glower away from permanent membership in the Pacino-De Niro Ridiculous Actor Hall of Fame — where he can join Armand Assante, whose buffoonish performance in American Gangster as a skeet-shooting mafia don is what should (but, sadly, won't) be the movie goombah's death rattle.
Lucas' cutthroat business policies are never questioned. His nascent drug empire is justified as vengeance capitalism; he came from hard times, so he's out to get his, and who's to blame if most of the damage his business does is equivalent to black-on-black crime? Is the unquestioned law of the expanding corporation so ingrained in our consciousness that even illegal enterprises are glorified if they are effective? Is there no courage left in movies for any critical look at the disastrous effects of free-market madness? Short answer: not during Oscar season, my man.