Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster” is a movie that boasts two of the biggest movie stars in the world in Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. Separately, Washington and Crowe can lay claim to the type of filmography that actors would sell their souls for, and they’re just getting started. In “Gangster”, the two actors don’t even come eye-to-eye until almost towards the end of the film. And you know what? That’s exactly how it should be. Before Crowe’s crusading cop and Washington’s drug dealer ever looks each other in the eyes, we have traveled the roads with them through their respective territories and come to know them as more than just cop and criminal, but men.
“American Gangster” opens in 1968 with a blunt introduction to Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) — we see him nonchalantly set a man on fire before shooting him five times at point blank range. Lucas is the former chauffeur and prodigy to Harlem’s reigning gangster, Bumpy Johnson, who quickly passes away and leaving his empire to Lucas. The young Frank, realizing that the drug business is going downhill fast, with the mafia, the crooked cops, and his fellow Harlem gangsters all cutting in on the business, comes up with an ingenious way to get back on top. He’ll go to the source, into the jungles of Southeast Asia, and bring pure, undiluted heroin back to America in the coffins of dead American servicemen from the Vietnam War.
And then there’s Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a New York Detective at the crossroads. Roberts spends his nights attending law school and his days as a crusader cop, albeit one who isn’t beyond tweaking the law in favor of the means justifying the end. His neglected wife (Carla Gugino) is divorcing him and threatening to take their son to Las Vegas, and his partner has fallen down the rabbit hole of drugs. In 1960s New York, you’re either a crooked cop or you’re a target. When Roberts turns in nearly a million dollars of mob money, he becomes a leper to the police department. But salvation comes in the guise of a newly created federal drug task force. Their mission: get guys like Frank Lucas.
Directed by Ridley Scott (“Kingdom of Heaven”), “American Gangster” is a richly detailed period film, vibrant with the signs of the times in which it is set. Everything, from the cars to the clothes to the Harlem neighborhood is brought to vivid life by the production staff, and Scott fully embraces the grimy, and at the same time nostalgic cool of the ’60s and ’70s. As a director, Scott has never had less to do. What is there to do when you have two Oscar-caliber actors filling up every second of your film? If Washington’s smooth criminal isn’t holding court on the streets of Harlem, we are racing across New York with Crowe’s scruffy cop. Scott’s job is simply to point and shoot, and fill in the details in-between Washington and Crowe’s command of the screen.
Screenplay credit for “American Gangster” goes to Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”), based on a New York Magazine article titled “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson. There hasn’t been a lot written about Lucas, counting a biography called “Superfly: The True Untold Story of Frank Lucas, American Gangster” by Ron Chepesiuk and Anthony Gonzalez, and a brief entry in Wikipedia. Whether the real Lucas was anything close to the one played by Washington is open to debate, but if true, you can see how someone like Lucas would fly under the radar, even as he topped the Harlem drug trade for years at the height of his power, claiming to make over $1 million a day, only to have a gratuitous mink coat be his undoing. That last part is probably an invention of the screenplay, but it certainly works.
“American Gangster” is a slick crime film, the kind that can only be made on an eight-digit production budget. The film is not without humor, with a notable scene featuring Lucas arguing the finer points of copyright infringement with fellow gangster Nicky Barnes (a giddy and pimped out Cuba Gooding Jr.). Josh Brolin turns in an effective supporting performance as a crooked cop who runs his own crew as if they were another gang roaming the streets of New York protecting their turf. Lucas’ wife is played by Lymari Nada as a former Puerto Rican beauty queen who catches Lucas’ fancy. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Armand Assante as a representative of the established New York mob that wants in on Lucas’ business.
“American Gangster” is really two separate movies — the rise and fall of Frank Lucas’ criminal empire, and the police procedurals of Richie Roberts’ war on crime. It just so happens that toward the end, their two worlds finally converge, as they must. For those waiting for a scene like the one shared by Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s “Heat”, that does happen here, as the two men lay their cards on the table and attempt to game the other. It’s a great, understated verbal duel filled with unspoken threats and counter-threats, written superbly by Zaillian and shot without fanfare by Scott, who knows he is working with great actors, and so never interjects himself into their affairs.
“American Gangster” really is that good that it can take two hours to build up a confrontation, and have that confrontation be a simple back-and-forth dialogue scene between two actors in a room across a cheap table. Separately, Roberts and Lucas’ story can stand on their own, but together, they make for one of the best crime films in a long while.
Ridley Scott (director) / Steven Zaillian (written by), Mark Jacobson (article)
CAST: Denzel Washington … Frank Lucas
Russell Crowe … Richie Roberts
Chiwetel Ejiofor … Huey Lucas
Josh Brolin … Detective Trupo
RZA … Moses Jones
Carla Gugino … Laurie Roberts
Cuba Gooding Jr. … Nicky Barnes
Lymari Nadal … Eva
Armand Assante … Dominic Cattano