American Gangster is a big budget crime film about heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, a real life crime boss who operated in New York in the late 1960's and early 1970's. He imported his drugs direct from Vietnam and claims to have earned up to $1 million a day peddling them on the streets until he was arrested in 1975 and sentenced to 70 years in prison. Lucas was able to reduce his sentence by informing on a number of his former associates and only served a few years. The film is based on a magazine article by Mark Jacobsen entitled "The Return of Superfly" which was adapted for the screen by the talented Steve Zaillian.
In the film Lucas is played by Denzel Washington and we open with him working as a bodyguard and driver for crime boss mentor Bumpy Johnson. When Bumpy passes away Lucas wastes no time in establishing himself but he seeks a loftier position than his boss held, he sees no reason to work for other people when he can cut out the middleman and just buy and sell his drugs directly with his own crew.
Lucas visits Vietnam to establish a drug supply and is able to purchase high grade heroin for low prices. This means he can sell purer product than his competitors at a lower price and unsurprisingly his business is soon booming. He smuggles the heroin back into the states in the coffins of dead soldiers and floods the streets of New York.
Enter his nemesis, Detective Richie Roberts, a super honest cop played by Russell Crowe whose credentials are established early on when he takes a million dollars in a bust and actually turns it in to the department much to the surprise of everyone. Roberts is charged with putting together a special unit and cracking down on the heroin trade which he sets about doing with limited success.
Ridley Scott is the director here and he sets the scene beautifully capturing the now familiar grimy 70's New York. From the grubby projects and beaten up junkies to the corrupt police and organised crime bosses each character has an authentic feel and fitting background. There is a bit of awkward narration and the cast is huge so keeping the story coherent is a bit of a challenge. Scott does well handling the entire affair with a great deal of style though some of the scenes feel a bit unnecessary and the action is far from original. Highlights include the early scene where Crowe is called to rescue his partner from an angry mob, Scott captures the impending violence beautifully and the tension really comes through the screen. Sadly this level of excitement is lacking elsewhere and many of the events play out in a strangely subdued way.
The cast is full of big names. Crowe is probably the pick of the bunch as the Serpico like Roberts, he oozes masculine bravado and that stupid brand of hell for leather bravery and there is a nice contrast between his desperation to be an upstanding whiter than white cop and his complete failure as a father and husband. The usually amazing Denzel Washington is very quiet here and while you hope for a more exuberant character he is deliberately understated, indeed his character makes a big deal about remaining unobtrusive so as not to draw unwanted attention, a clever ploy which goes awfully wrong when he wears a hideously ostentatious fur coat and hat combo to the big fight and manages to catch the eye of the local cops both good and bad. Josh Brolin plays the cartoon baddie, corrupt cop Trupo a fairly uninspiring villain. A number of familiar character actors pop up in a number of familiar parts and each does their job well enough but there are no real stand out performances.
The story is satisfyingly complex and it unfolds slowly over the 157 minute running time. While the production values are high and the film is clearly skilfully put together and well acted it lacks the thrills of other famous crime films such as Goodfellas or the Godfather trilogy, perhaps because of the factual material this is a more downbeat tale.
American Gangster makes a big deal out of the fact that Lucas was a black guy sticking it to the mafia and the corrupt cops, that he was able to have this huge mega crime organisation that they couldn't touch but sometimes it seems to forget that at the end of the day his power and wealth was based on selling heroin to people, a frighteningly destructive and unpleasant drug. While you could argue his story deserves to be told, particularly since the mafia have been glamorised consistently for years now, it is still worth remembering that he is not worthy of your admiration.
This is a beautifully made film and well worth paying to see. Scott really does capture the scene perfectly and the script is very good the only disappointment is the ending which seems intent on holding Lucas up as some kind of a hero when in fact he was a drug dealer; he was just extremely good at it.