When films become too bloated with symbolism or satire, viewers disengage from the cinematic atmosphere. Such is the case with Ridley Scott's American Gangster; too stylized to be bad, too familiar to be great.
With the increasing trend of anticipated films that overuse and disappoint, it would seem appropriate for a film, especially one with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in its cast, to come along and break this cycle. While neither actor gives a shabby performance, Washington is much too regal for his role and the lives of the two fail to intertwine comfortably. The film is not a failure, but rather a fractured alternative at best.
One of the best things that Martin Scorsese's The Departed did was provide that feeling of symmetry between the two main characters; they were surrounded by the same people, places and situations. In Gangster, Crowe (an obliging New Jersey detective) fails to even register Washington as a suspect until an hour and a half into the plot. It is much too convoluted to be a triumph. There are few interesting developments and perhaps one parallel made between the two characters; not nearly enough correlation to pit any two characters against each other, even if they are Alonzo Harris and Maximus.
Denzel Washington, who plays actual 1970s kingpin Frank Lucas, carries a large weight on his shoulder throughout the film, since he is meant to symbolize so much of the corrupt American dream. Lucas is constantly perceived as aspiring or conquering; much like Scarface's Tony Montana, but Washington's persona is already at the top. The man has won Oscars; there is no need to prove any credibility. Maybe it is the way that Scott elects the arrangement of the scenes: in the first, Washington is masochistic and empowered; in the next he is the driver of the character Samson from Half Baked (Clarence Williams III).
Overlooking this, Washington and Crowe seem too detached from one another to ever notice they are in the same film. A majority of the film is Washington's story and when the film switches to Crowe's story, it feels like Scott is directing two separate but similar films.
The film digs up old cinematic tricks with gangster stereotypes and inserts them into the plot as if no one would become aware. This is yet another trend by the ever-substandard film community to try to build originality around unoriginal ideas.
With the help of Josh Brolin, Crowe's mischievous cop counterpart, the film stays afloat throughout the unavoidable two-and-a-half hour run time. Brolin's behavior is almost as sinister as it was in Planet Terror, but with more depth and reason. Without him, there would be no comparable factors between Washington and Crowe. Outside of stylish gangster violence (most incidences introduced calmly by Washington) and sporadic amusing one-liners, American Gangster is just another punch at the champ that is batted down by its own expectation.