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This review was written for the theatrical release of “American Gangster.”
The title is catchy but misleading. Frank Lucas was less an “American Gangster” than an original Old Gangster in sable, a caricature in the tradition of ’70s blaxploitation flicks.
He is in fact a real-life character, an apparently highly attractive person — likable even — who made millions by killing people and ruining lives with the powdered death of heroin. Going up against this all-powerful yet ghostly figure who operates outside the old Mafia networks, is Richie Roberts, an incorruptible cop from the street who is determined put him in prison. Director Ridley Scott takes on these familiar subjects, themes and characters with a keen eye for the social fabric, false assumptions, suffocating corruption and vivid personalities that make such a story worth retelling.
So this is a gangster movie focused on character rather than action and on the intricacies of people’s backgrounds, strategies and motivations. Whether it means to, the film plays off a clutch of old movies, from “The Godfather” and “Serpico” to “Superfly” and “Shaft.” But Scott and writer Steven Zaillian make certain their Old Gangster is original and true to himself and his times rather than a concoction of movie fiction. Consequently, the movie is smooth and smart enough to attract a significant audience beyond the considerable fan base of its stars, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
You do sense in this movie that its principals are returning to safe harbor. After a discouraging foray into feeble comedy by Scott and Crowe (“A Good Year”) and Gothic Southern melodrama for Zaillian (“All the King’s Men”), these artists scramble back to an emotional naturalism more aligned to their sensibilities. Even for Washington, who seldom makes a false step careerwise, the film represents a welcome return to the larger-than-life villainy he performed so well in 2001’s “Training Day.”
Zaillian, working from Mark Jacobson’s magazine portrait of Lucas — a heroin kingpin of Harlem in the late ’60s and early ’70s — sets two men on a collision course. Lucas (Washington), a country lad from North Carolina, is the nearly invisible driver and right-hand man to Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, the most famous of Harlem gangsters. (So famous that this is his fourth movie reincarnation. Moses Gunn played him in “Shaft,” and Lawrence Fishburne twice in “The Cotton Club” and “Hoodlum.”) When Bumpy dies in his arms, Frank moves into the vacuum caused by his death with ruthless guile and a friendly personality.
Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Crowe), a street-smart drug cop in New Jersey, is Frank’s opposite: He can’t help alienating everyone who crosses his path. His wife wants a divorce, insisting he leads a life entirely unsuitable to the welfare of their only child. Fellow cops shun him from the moment he brings in nearly a million dollars of recovered drug money. No one can understand why he didn’t keep it, which says a lot about the state of policing in the New York/New Jersey area in 1968.
Frank’s stroke of genius in the drug trade is to cut out the middleman. He flies to Thailand, takes a boat up the river in the Golden Triangle, makes a deal with a Chinese general, then arranges through an in-law to ship the kilos to New York in military planes coming back from Vietnam. His heroin, branded Blue Magic, hits the street twice as good and half as much as the competition.
It is so pure that dead junkies turn up all over New York. The police are baffled but look in all the wrong places. It never occurs to them that a black man is behind the scheme. Richie, whose whacked-out partner is one of Blue Magic’s victims, is given his own task force. He finally targets Frank, but no one will believe him.
Frank flies under the radar. He hires only relatives — a veritable army of brothers like Huey Lucas (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as well as cousins — whom he sets up with storefront businesses that function as drug-distribution centers. He maintains a low profile and adheres to a rigid code of conduct. His major weekly outings are to church with his mother (the inestimable Ruby Dee) or to his nightclub with wife Eva (Lymari Nadal), a former Miss Puerto Rico.
Richie’s major opposition comes from within. New York’s anti-drug task force, the Special Investigations Unit, is rife with corruption. As personified by Detective Trupo (a strutting Josh Brolin), the SIU takes its cut right off the top.
In a story that ranges from the jungles of Harlem and Thailand to North Carolina backwoods, Scott is both hurried and leisurely. He covers a lot of territory, often in low-light levels and with the Vietnam War playing on background TV sets, soaking up the sordid atmosphere, including naked, surgically masked women cutting the dope — so no one will steal anything — and celebrities like Joe Lewis cheerfully slumming with the gangsters. The scruffiness of Richie’s world makes a brilliant contrast to Frank’s penthouse. Yet both worlds teem with moral ambiguity.
If there are no false steps here, there are few highlights either. Such films as “The Godfather” and “Serpico” contain iconic scenes and sequences. “American Gangster” contributes little. It’s workmanlike and engrossing, but what sticks in the mind are Frank and Richie, not what anybody does.
The film concocts a final sequence in which the two finally meet and do a deal, the deal that apparently sprung Frank from prison to enjoy his old age: Frank rats out the SIU cops who shook him down, resulting in most of the unit going to prison. Richie ends up leaving the force to become a lawyer and eventually represents Frank. So “American Gangster” finally shows its true colors: It’s really a buddy movie.
Imagine Entertainment presents a Relativity Media/Scott Free Prods. production
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian
Based on an article by: Mark Jacobson
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott
Executive producers: Nicholas Pileggi, Steven Zaillian, Branko Lustig, Jim Whitaker, Michael Costigan
Director of photography: Harris Savides
Production designer: Arthur Max
Music: Marc Streitenfeld
Costume designer: Janty Yates
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Frank Lucas: Denzel Washington
Richie Roberts: Russell Crowe
Huey Lucas: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Detective Trupo: Josh Brolin
Eva: Lymari Nadal
Lou: Ted Levine
Nate: Roger Guenveur Smith
Freddie Spearman: John Hawkes
Moses Jones: RZA
Nickey Barnes: Cuba Gooding Jr.
Dominic: Armand Assante
Mama Lucas: Rudy Dee
Running time — 157 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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