Frank Lucas (Washington) is the driver, bodyguard, collector, man of all trades for a notorious gangster (Clarence Williams III) who rules the drug trade in Harlem in the late 60s. As much harm as he does, Lucas’ boss also does good, handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving, for instance. When his boss dies, Lucas takes over and expands the empire. He immediately tries to figure out a way to import his drugs, taking out the middleman and increasing the potency, making his empire grow all the faster. As word of his brand “Blue Magic” spreads, he brings the rest of his family from North Carolina and enlists his brothers and cousins (played by among others Chiwetel Ejiolfor and Common) to become his lieutenants. Detective Richie Roberts (Crowe) and his partner find a stash of cash totaling almost a million dollars. Richie can’t do anything but turn it in to the evidence room but his partner worries they will be ostracized. Sure enough, his partner’s prediction comes true. When the opportunity to head the newly formed Drug Enforcement Agency’s branch in New Jersey comes up, Richie jumps at the chance and forms his new unit. He knows they need to make the big scores, they need to make headlines or they will not last long. He trails a possible lead to the Joe Louis fight and watches Lucas and his wife walk to the best seats in the house. Frank has also let his wife’s choice of a chinchilla coat get the better of him and he stands out like a sore thumb. Richie takes his picture, because he has better seats than the head of the local Mafia (Armand Assante), and tells his crew Frank Lucas is their new goal. As Frank seeks out ways to continue expanding his empire and influence, Richie and his crew try to build a case against the drug kingpin.
“American Gangster” is a very well made film. From the moment the first frame of film rolls through the projector, you get a feel for the time and place. This story takes place in New York in the early 70s. Director Scott gives the film a brownish tinge, painting the images in a gritty, worn tone, emulating the films made during this period. I almost expected Al Pacino to walk onscreen as Serpico. As with any of Ridley Scott’s films, the production values are excellent, costume and production design further cement our feeling of the time and place.
Washington and Crowe have each created some very memorable characters and each is almost always, at the least, good. The two haven’t appeared together in a feature film for a long time, and the mere idea of their appearance together has generated a lot of buzz and is driving big box office. But “Gangster” tells two parallel stories through most of the film’s running time. The two actors don’t appear on screen together, facing off, until late in the film. This isn’t really a criticism, because each actor does such an excellent job of establishing and running with their character. But the fact they don’t appear together on screen for such a long period of time contributes to the lack of fireworks.
Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, a determined man, with a definite sense of what he wants and how to get it. When his boss dies, he sits at the memorial service and watches all of the other people in the room, noting how they talk about his deceased boss and how they treat him. He witnesses more than a little disrespect and makes a mental note to correct the problems later.
As he steps into his boss’s shoes, he tries to figure out ways to increase profits and his power, leading him to come up with a plan to import the drugs directly. That means he has to travel to Thailand and Cambodia, at the height of the Vietnam War and meet with the drug lords who manufacture the heroin. Using a cousin who is serving in the Army, he arranges to have the drugs shipped back in the coffins of deceased servicemen. With this part of the plan in place, Frank set up a distribution network and the money starts to roll in. But Frank is a smart guy and he knows the best way to stay under the radar is to drive an old car and wear natty suits. He admonishes his brother (Ejiofor) for wearing a flashy outfit and goes against his better judgment when he wears the expensive, and flashy, chinchilla coat his wife gives him to the Louis fight. Naturally, this is what causes Richie to set his eyes on Lucas.
Washington does a great job of making Lucas seem real. Yes, he is a killer and a drug dealer, but he seems more of a businessman. Everything he does is the result of trying to expand his empire. He brings his family north and sets them up in the boroughs of New York because he knows he can trust them. If he is going to have other people handling his money and his product, he wants them to be family. He can trust family. When a rival boss (Idris Elba, HBO’s “The Wire”, “28 Weeks Later”) demands an unreasonable payment for ‘rent’, Frank tries to reason with him. When that doesn’t work, he takes matters into his own hands.
As you watch Washington portray all of the different facets of this character you realize the performance is all the more convincing because he could easily be mistaken for an ambitious businessman. Part of this can be attributed to Lucas’ desire to remain under the radar by trying to blend in. On the few occasions he lets his better judgment lapse, he doesn’t seem comfortable, or entirely convincing for that matter. In a way, this helps Washington’s portrayal, because we realize how uncomfortable he is wearing a chinchilla coat and why.
Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the detective who is too honest for his own good. As soon as Richie says he has to return the money he and his partner found, his partner knows they will be ostracized. Cops aren’t that honest, if they are, they are probably snitching on other cops. They turn in the money and his partner’s prophecy comes true. Richie tries to continue to do his job, but a pivotal moment leads him to realize they will never get the support they need from their department. This is why he welcomes the opportunity to head up the new Drug Enforcement Agency branch in New Jersey. After handpicking the members of his team, he continues to live an extremely honest life, to the amazement of his own team. But he sets an example they follow.
Richie is very determined to pull in some big scores and when he sets his sights on Lucas, he almost becomes a pit bull, refusing to let go until he has the man behind bars. Crowe does a very good job of weaving all of these attributes together. Crowe brings all of Roberts’ determination to life and makes it believable. It is also interesting to see the few glimpses we have into Roberts’ personal life, as these illustrations only serve to further reinforce everything we know about him. Because he is so determined to catch the man, we understand this is a trait of Roberts’. Once he sets his mind to something, he doesn’t do much else except pursue leads. This is why he is going through a bitter divorce with his wife (Carla Gugino) and fighting with her for custody of their son. This is why he has meaningless one-night stands with stewardesses. This is why his apartment is a sty.
After Richie forms his new task force, he sets his eyes on an Italian Mafioso who is known to be involved in the drug racket. Armed with a camera, he attends the Joe Louis fight and watches Lucas and his wife, both dressed in expensive fur coats, walk to the first row and sit in better seats than the Mafioso. He quickly puts two and two together and determines Lucas is his new target. He and his team start a massive surveillance effort and begin to amass information about Lucas and his dealings.
As the story progresses, we learn more and more about these two men and all of the people involved in their lives. Steve Zaillain, one of the most well regarded writers working in Hollywood, gives each character a back-story and makes them an interesting part of this very involving story.
Scott, as always, does a good job keeping all of the various threads lively and interesting.
But “American Gangster” lacks fireworks. You would expect Lucas to get into a number of confrontations and a number of situations leading to deadly outcomes. While there are a few, there are also a number of instances when you might expect something like this to happen only for the story thread to disappear with no resolution. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a rival gangster, complete with the flashy clothes and bling. When Lucas has a problem with him, he confronts Nicky (Gooding, Jr.) in his own club. They throw threats at each other. You would probably expect Lucas or one of his brothers to go out and dispatch the rival. This never happens and there are other examples of this. Without these fireworks, “Gangster” becomes more of a police procedural and less a gangster film. I have no doubt this film is a true depiction of what actually happened, and it is very good. But I was expecting more action, more violence, and more fireworks. Heck, I was hoping for it. I don’t like it when films have nonstop gratuitous violence, but when you go to see a film about gangsters, you should expect some.
That said, “American Gangster” is very good. It features fine performances from two of the best actors working in the business today. It also features a wealth of interesting supporting performances. It is a film definitely worth seeing.