American Gangster opens with a sickeningly brutal act of violence. The moment catches you off guard because literally nothing has happened yet, but that’s kind of the point. Right from the get-go, you realize that central character Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington) is not a man to be messed with. Based on a true story, American Gangster follows Lucas, a Harlem drug lord who is looking for a competitive edge. He finds it in pure heroin, which he arranges to have transported to the United States from Asia’s Golden Triangle. Since the Vietnam war is raging, he has the drugs hidden in the caskets of deceased soldiers.
What Lucas sells on the streets is dubbed Blue Magic, and it offers “twice the quality for half the price” of the typical Mafia-controlled heroin. After introducing it into the neighborhoods, the money starts rolling in. Lucas brings his brothers and cousins up from North Carolina to help run the front businesses. One of them, Stevie (played by rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris), has the skills to be a pro baseball player but he likes making the fast drug money more. Not everyone is so keen on the way Lucas starts to change the face of the drug trade. The mob resents the way he’s out-marketing them with a better product. Then there’s a crooked cop named Trupo (Josh Brolin) who wants a cut of the profits since the money is being made on the streets he ostensibly protects. Lucas, however, doesn’t like anyone else calling the shots.
In a parallel story, we meet Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a New Jersey detective who loathes corruption within the police department. After finding a million bucks in drug money, he turns it in, much to the consternation of his colleagues, who would rather he divvy it up. Although Richie holds himself to impeccable moral standards on the job, his personal life is quite the opposite. He’s locked in a custody battle with his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) who has tired of his cheating and lying. Given a once-in-a-career opportunity to assemble a drug task force, Richie puts together his team and starts looking for kingpins to take down, eventually discovering Lucas. He and his crew gather information and slowly work their way closer to discovering the true source of Blue Magic.
American Gangster is an epic film, and there’s no way to encapsulate its entire plot in just a few paragraphs, so I’ve left a lot of stuff out. What’s important to know is that director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) have crafted a movie with real scope. The film follows Lucas throughout his journey, showing us not only how he got started but also how he continued to evolve his business practices as the times and the circumstances changed. The end result is a portrait of a man who was brilliant in business, even though his business was something less than reputable.
To be honest, the movie caught me a little off guard, but that’s a big part of why I liked it. I was expecting a sort of in-your-face gangster saga – a slightly more low-key Scarface or a modern-day New Jack City, if you will. Instead, American Gangster creeps up on you. Rather than over-dramatizing things, it very carefully establishes a time and a place (Harlem in the 70’s) and sets you down in the middle of this era to soak up the details and the atmosphere. By going for a realistic, heavily authentic approach – rather than a more attention-getting melodramatic one – the picture really gets under your skin. I was especially awed by how genuine the settings felt. Other movies have been set in the 70’s. With many of them, you can feel the art direction and the costumes taking center stage. Not here. Ridley Scott carefully controls the tone so that we almost feel like a fly on the wall of an era in crime.
The other notable detail (among far too many to list in the confines of a review) is the development of the Frank Lucas character. Masterfully played by Denzel Washington, we can see that Lucas is a businessman through and through. He markets his product to a specific target demo. He despises any behaviors that are attention-seeking. These things, he insists, are equivalent to one begging for arrest. Instead, he wears low-key business suits. He keeps his associates close, choosing people who will not betray him. And, perhaps most importantly, he counteracts his criminal drug dealing with acts of generosity toward his family and his community. “Taking care of Harlem” is a major preoccupation; even as he dispenses deadly drugs to its citizens, many people respect him for the positive things he does.
Was Frank Lucas a good guy or a monster, or some combination of both? Probably the latter. It’s rare for a movie to go as in-depth with a character as American Gangster does. What’s truly impressive is that the movie never loses perspective. Every time I started to find Lucas sympathetic, Scott would suddenly cut to the character lashing out with horrific violence. It’s a perfect balance that allows you to absorb the intelligence and business acumen of Lucas without condoning what he does.
At its core, moral ambiguity is really the story’s subject. Lucas peddles heroine yet also hands out turkeys to everyone at Thanksgiving and provides lovingly for his extended family. Richie refuses to go on the take, but he’s a louse and a loser when off duty. Trupo is a cop, ostensibly charged to uphold the law, yet he gladly accepts a payoff. American Gangster bounces the actions of these characters – and multiple others – off one another, allowing us to see the very thin line that sometimes separates good and evil. In and around the drug trade, perhaps, there are no heroes and villains, just individuals with varying degrees of ethics.
On every technical level, American Gangster is first-rate. Washington and Crowe are Oscar-worthy, Scott’s direction is simultaneously gritty and entrancing, and Zaillian’s screenplay is intelligent and literate. As he’s a real figure, you may know that Frank Lucas’s life took an interesting twist at one point when he turned informer, leading to the arrest of many crooked cops. It’s probably the last place you’d expect his journey to lead. American Gangster doesn’t glorify Lucas, nor does it demonize him. Instead, it looks deep into his soul and finds a man who made different decisions for different reasons. The brilliance of the film is that, approve of them or not, we understand why he did what he did every step of the way.
( out of four)
American Gangster is rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 37 minutes.
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