In one telling scene of the critically-acclaimed 2007 Ridley Scott film American Gangster, a high-ranking mobster tells drug kingpin Frank Lucas, “We can be successful and have enemies, or we can be unsuccessful and have friends.” This bit of wisdom comes after Lucas has been complaining about the way he feels other New York drug dealers are disrespecting him, and is a very accurate pronouncement about Frank’s situation.
Lucas has plenty of enemies out there, including Ritchie Roberts, a crusading detective from the Newark PD. Roberts and his handpicked band of officers are closing in on Lucas fast, and it’s just a matter of time before they bring Lucas’ empire down.
Scott’s film could easily have gone down a predictable Hollywood path and ended in a violent shootout — as it might have done had it been written by Oliver Stone (think Scarface). But American Gangster is based on a true story, so the ending is actually a lot tamer and more believable.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): In 1968, the big man in Harlem was gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (played by Clarence Williams III). Everyone respected Bumpy, and business (primarily drug dealing) was run in an orderly fashion. But when Bumpy dies suddenly of a heart attack, the ensuing power vacuum gives rise to a bunch of wannabes, and near-chaos ensues.
That’s when Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), Bumpy’s former driver, sees an opportunity. Lucas gets the brilliant idea of starting up a whole new drug distribution ring, one in which the middleman is completely eliminated. Frank will get his drugs directly from the supplier — in this case, an army general in Thailand. Frank’s cousin, who is in the U.S. Army, will see to it that the drugs get smuggled into America inside the coffins of dead soldiers being shipped back from Vietnam.
The plan works beautifully, and soon Frank is selling what he calls Blue Magic, a very pure form of heroin that he offers for a fraction of the price of his competition. In no time at all, Frank becomes the biggest drug lord in New York, and consequently is targeted by other gangsters and, of course, the police.
Speaking of the police, we also meet Det. Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who early in his career earns an Eliot Ness-like reputation for honesty and integrity after turning in a bag containing nearly $1 million in cash that he recovered from a drug dealer’s car. The implication here is that most other cops would have kept it, or skimmed a bit off the top at the very least.
And in another move reminiscent of Ness, Roberts assembles a small group of detectives who he knows can’t be bought. Together, they try to bring down Lucas — and eventually succeed.
My Reaction: Even though I knew going in that American Gangster received mostly rave reviews, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. I thought it would turn out to be a pretentious, overly-preachy marathon that would be torture to sit through — but I was completely wrong. American Gangster was a terrific film that was made enjoyable by the riveting performances of Washington and Crowe.
Denzel Washington was awesome as Frank Lucas: calm and cool on the outside, but ready to explode in an instant if someone dared to cross him. Usually I don’t like graphic violence even in R-rated films, but the two scenes where Lucas went psycho on people (interrupting his breakfast to go shoot one guy in the head and the scene at his party where he started beating the crap out of someone) were absolutely necessary, and served to underscore that despite the well-dressed businesslike exterior, Lucas was a cold-blooded murderer.
I liked Crowe as well, and thought his take on Roberts was very good. Roberts exhibited a genuine earnestness that was believable because it stopped well short of being holier-than-thou. Roberts hated that other cops were on the take, but he didn’t go around preaching against them or trying to show them up. He just went about his business without injecting his brand of morality on anyone else. Perfect.
The film managed to remain interesting throughout, with the only slow spots coming whenever Roberts’ marital problems surfaced. Was any of that stuff even necessary?
Overall, I thought American Gangster was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. From strong acting to a solid storyline, this definitely is a movie that I could watch again and again. I give it 5 stars out of 5.