Friday Film Focus: American Gangster

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Apart from the detail that he was a heroin dealer, Frank Lucas’ career would be an ideal case study for a business school. American Gangster tells his success story. Denzel Washington looms like a colossus as notorious drug lord Lucas. In the still, watchful center of his volcanic performance, you’ll find the measure of a dangerous man.

Inheriting a crime empire from his famous boss Bumpy Johnson, Lucas cornered the New York drug trade with admirable capitalist strategies. He personally flew to Southeast Asia to buy his product directly from the suppliers. Before long, bribed soldiers are smuggling thousands of kilos of uncut heroin into the country for him. His “Blue Magic” brand of dope is flooding the market — purer and cheaper than anything else available.  At the end, he was worth more than $150 million.

Attempting to build a crime family worthy of his insanely profitable product, Lucas imports many of his own brothers and cousins from North Carolina (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common, among others), knowing they’ll be more grateful — and more loyal — than the locals. Meanwhile, a painfully honest Essex County detective named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) loses a friend to Blue Magic and starts investigating. Roberts has a very bad reputation in his department. How does he do that? By finding $1 million in drug money — and turning it in. What the hell kind of a thing is that to do, when the usual practice would be to share it with the boys?

There is something inside Roberts that will not bend, not even when his powerful colleague (Josh Brolin) threatens him. Like David Fincher with Zodiac, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian know their rise-and-fall crime story is familiar cinematic grist, so they compensate by slowing down the action, keeping the tension level low, and taking an observational, in-the-moment stance that gives them time to build characters as well as criminal cases. Richie vows to bring down Frank Lucas, and he does…although it isn’t easy.

Frank is the flame that draws us in. We see Frank first torching a victim, then pumping him full of bullets. In business, Frank doesn’t believe in a job half done. Lucas, the student of the late Bumpy, has a simple credo: Treat people right, keep a low profile, adhere to sound business practices, and hand out turkeys on Thanksgiving. In the film, Lucas is low-key and soft-spoken. No rings on his fingers, no gold around his neck, no spinners on his hubcaps. He has a quiet marriage to a sweet wife. Lucas is aware that the flashier he is, the more likely he is to be discovered. In fact, it is sole indiscretion of this principle that leads to his identity being uncovered. 

Lucas may be quiet, but his actions speak louder than words. Lucas is a killer with a propensity for particularly dramatic killings. It takes the authorities the longest time to figure out who he is, because they can’t believe an African American could hijack the Harlem drug trade from the Mafia. No wonder Frank believes in America: The corporate lifestyle of lie-cheat-steal-kill works for him. Frank damn near flies under Richie’s radar until he breaks conservative form and pimps out by wearing a chinchilla coat and hat (gifts from his wife) to an Ali-Frazier fight. That makes him a target.

Who wants him dead most? A rival dealer (Cuba Gooding Jr.) ? A bad cop? A mob boss? When it was first announced, Ridley Scott’s film was called The Black Godfather. Not correct. For one thing, it tells two parallel stories (not one). It really has to — because without Richie, there would be no story to tell — and Lucas might still be in business.

Frank and Richie are both outsiders playing by rules everyone else ignores. As. Richie’s grip tightens around Frank, the movie closes in for the kill by crosscutting between a massacre and a church service. The climax also allows Washington and Crowe to finally occupy the screen together. Washington and Crowe clash like titans — they’re something to see. So what’s the downside? The movie is long (157 minutes), overstuffed (Richie’s court fight against his wife for child custody belongs on Lifetime), shadowed by innovators (Coppola, Scorsese, The Sopranos) and limited by giving equal time to Richie when — don’t kid yourself — Frank is the true star.

With all of that said, this is an engrossing story — told smoothly and well by Scott. The film ends not with a Scarface-style shootout, but with Frank and Richie sitting down for a long, intelligent conversation. American Gangster is a modestly flawed yet consistently entertaining crime drama featuring strong performances by Washington and Crowe, excellent cinematography from Harris Savides, and a complementary soundtrack that bridges scenes nicely.

It’s truly a film to watch.