In Dana Stevens’ review of American Gangster she doesn’t quite buy Denzel Washington’s performance in the lead role as gangster Frank Lucas:
Frank Lucas… should be the dark, pulsing heart of this movie. Instead, Washington’s gangster is as opaque and iconic as the face on a coin. It’s hard to know whether to attribute this indistinct quality to the script (by Steven Zaillian), to Washington’s tight-lipped performance, or to something that exceeds both, a factor we’ll call “Denzelitude.” As I heard one viewer say on the way out of the screening, “I had my problems with the movie, but you just can’t hate on Denzel.” Precisely. Despite Washington’s Oscar-winning excursion into villainy in Training Day, he’s still somehow too measured, too refined and statesmanlike, to bring the gonzo crazy when needed. I found his performance in Training Day a bit hammy, but in American Gangster, Washington goes the other direction; he plays a drug kingpin so austere and restrained that we never understand Frank’s true motivation. Is he simply a born businessman, who might in another time and place have made his millions in mergers and acquisitions? Or does he need to be a criminal—does he enjoy gunning down rivals in broad daylight and slamming people’s heads into grand pianos?
I had my own problems with the movie, but I liked Washington’s performance a bit more than Stevens did. And I think the answer to her question —and what she’s picking up on by asking it — is that Scott and Zaillian were trying, in an admittedly vague and not particularly convincing way, to suggest that being a “born businessman” and being a thuggish criminal are more or less the same thing. So the reason she can’t tell which one best describes Lucas is that because he’s both, and in this movie, at least, there’s no real difference between the two.