Well, we can start with the facts about American Gangster. It is extremely well acted and well produced, and how could it not be with its procession of Hollywood star power and cunning Oscar baits and switches? But it is also the years most insidious and calculatingly well-made trash in its worst form and a stingy guilty pleasure at its best. And it goes to show that the best thing Ridley Scott has done this year remains his final revisit to his sci-fi touchstone, Blade Runner: Final Cut. But considering that American Gangster and its base tropes owe to Scott revisiting the most iconic films of the genre (most notably Serpico, The Godfather and Scarface), it is no wonder that the film retains no measure of suspense or even relative surprise in its derivative drivel.
Epic in runtime and insignificant in scope, Scott owes its commercial success to Denzel Washingtons intense charisma as Frank Lucas and more pointedly to a media enhanced projection of the Gangster lifestyle that he aggrandises by making a drug lords rise through the slums (a loosely held term considering Scotts tendency to adorn the decay of Manhattan with superficial squalor) seem like the most inspirational story of an African-American breaking the mould since Jackie Robinson. The films explicitly offensive idea of progress is a dapper black individual (murderous and manipulative, notwithstanding) breaching the monopoly of South Americans and Italians in the drug trade, all as Lucas underlines his own cruel ambitions in the land of opportunities - "This is my country, this is America". After all, why should he let whitey destroy his community when he can do it just as easily?
It all hinges on Scotts topos that capitalist success derives from ruthlessness and the ponderous criticism of its corrupting power. He equates Lucas hardnosed tenacity that resulted in him cutting out the middlemen and buying raw drugs direct from Indochina with crafting him as the ultimate archetype for the approaching 80s Capitalist Machine. But then Scott indulgently leaves out the fundamental instinct for self-preservation, just another telltale of Scott not being really that interested in Frank Lucas: The Man as he is with Frank Lucas: The Empire Builder.
And lest we forget that corruption pervades all strata in the economic scale, American Gangster introduces for a substantial amount of its bloated runtime, the singularly incorruptible detective Richie Roberts in a concurrent narrative tract (Russell Crowe) whose sole claim to infamy is turning in a trunk filled with a million dollars in unmarked bills, and you know, just being inscrutably honest. If Lucas represents a Machiavellian ideal the film plainly exalts, then Roberts is his clunky counterpart, the ugly symbolic sibling that Scott throws a thousand clichs at and expecting any one to resound with any sort of emotional depth.
If the films most noteworthy aspect is Scotts misrepresented and callous portrayal of a Harlem kingpin then its most subtly egregious move is to present race and hard work as talking points. Its far too complacent in its hype, and far too trivial and literal to attempt any sort of irony in its commentary of a black criminals eventual success using the framework of the American way compared to a white cops bids at honesty.