As far as pure crime epics go, American Gangster ranks up there as truly unique. It is the juicy and remarkable true-life story of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas and the New Jersey cop who eventually took him down, Richie Roberts. Think Black Godfather meets chubby Serpico.
Aside the crime narrative, there is an underlying metaphor for capitalism in America director Ridley Scott throws at us. Lucas partially inherits a crime empire from his famous boss Bumpy Johnson but he goes on to turn the screws and flip the New York drug game on its head with entrepreneurial drive business strategists would applaud. In many ways, that is one of the more captivating things about this film, that sets it apart from other crime dramas in the same way Frank Lucas sets himself apart in the drug game.
Lucas has poise and the brains and after taking over from Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams), he realizes he is just a middleman in the drug trade and subject to other forces. So he addresses this handicap by engineering a deal that will allow him import shipments of drugs from Southeast Asia directly from the suppliers. He gets his product into the country using a simple but resourceful system and sells top drawer drugs high in purity for a lower cost than anyone else was able to establishing a monopoly and crippling his competitors. In the end, he was worth more than $150 million when he was arrested and only got a reduced sentence by cutting a deal to expose almost three-quarters of the NYPD narcotics officers as corrupt.
Lucas is played by Denzel Washington in another one of those smooth talking performances; almost a sanitised version of Alonzo Harris from Training Day; where he clearly was not on a leash. His performance is reigned in here and he says “My man” instead of “My nigga” but we never let that smile and his affable persona or the fact that he takes his mother to church every Sunday fool us – Frank is a driven and ruthless man. We see him set a man ablaze, bash someone’s head in a piano, carryout broad daylight sidewalk executions and then there’s the chilling sequence where he watches his drugs enslave scores.
Frank Lucas is undeniably cool but Scott never allows us to mistake him. Lucas wasn’t about bling and pimp suits and he kept a low profile like his mentor Bumpy taught him, always doing right by the people around him. That’s how an African American does what the Italians haven’t done in years and hijacks the drug trade.
On the other side of the spectrum is detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who famously, or infamously as far as his police department is concerned, turns in $1 million in drug money instead of doing honorable thing and pocketing it. There is something inside Roberts that will not bend and we do admire that trait in this poisonous climate of corruption that would shame most African countries. The shady greed and corruption is obscenely embodied by the slick mustang-driving New York detective (Josh Brolin) who is just despicably at home with the status quo.
Richie detests the crooked cops and he takes pride in his sanctimonious pedestal but again a poignant (somewhat gratuitous) segueway into his personal life and relations with his ex-wife keeps us from mistaking him for the nobleman he thinks he is and I appreciated that even with full awareness that this film was not remotely interested or needed to involve us in his family matters.
The film’s script was adapted by Steve Zaillian from a New York magazine article which I imagine focused on Frank Lucas the businessman. This filters into the screenplay with an entrepreneurial spin which was a real novelty for me as far as the crime genre is concerned. The film has its flaws, with a number of gratuitous offerings like shots of OD’ed junkies when the film wants us to feel for the faceless victims or the unwelcome interruptions of Richie’s domestic life. But these bumps are mere irritants.
Scott gets a slew of top-drawer performances with Washington’s smooth-talking crime patriarch and Crowe’s straight-arrow cop at the forefront who isn’t the most likable of characters. Scott is quite deliberate in infusing details that show which side of this crime spectrum he favours. Towards the film’s denouement, these two mammoths driving the story sit down for a nice enlightening conversation that reinforces how different these characters are from their usual crowd. It evoked for me Pacino and De Niro’s meet in a dinner in Michael Mann’s Heat.
The film is packed with a solid ensemble; from Idris Elba to John Hawkes but acts like the aforementioned Brolin really stand out. He is terrific here as the films true baddie with a badge and beacon of audiences hate. We also find some joy in the late Ruby Dee who is wise and warm as Lucas’ mother in a performance that scored her an Oscar nomination.
In the grand scheme of things, American Gangster may not stand up when the transcendent crime flicks are counted but it still stands up as a masterfully told story that makes 3 hours feel like a quarter of its running time. Scott is allured by the Frank Lucas persona and that seemingly intrepid decision to hoist the anti-hero up counts as one of the film’s strengths. This pleasurable tale is a must watch for all aficionados of the crime genre.