Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is so confident Harlem is his oyster he shoots a rival dead in broad daylight on a city street. People nearby are stunned but continue moving up and down the sidewalk. Frank strides back to his seat in a corner restaurant a quarter block from where the dead man lies in a pool of blood. Frank continues eating his lunch. Friends at Frank's table look withered after witnessing the abrupt hit through a large window of the café.
"American Gangster" is directed by the celebrated filmmaker, Ridley Scott. The script is by Steven Zaillian. Mark Jacobson wrote the originating material in an article in New York Magazine called "The Return of Superfly."
Frank Lucas is a real person who was the lord of Harlem's heroin traffic in the 1970s. Lucas was a hardworking elitist businessman/criminal who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and out of North Carolina. Scoring big time pure heroin from Southeast Asia (during the Vietnam War) with the help of crooked U.S. military personnel, Lucas sold it uncut, below market price, making millions. The smack was transported on U.S. military cargo planes from Vietnam and Thailand to a base near New York City. It was hidden in caskets bearing the bodies of dead servicemen coming home for burial; clever but ghoulishly unpatriotic.
Business acumen and pure ruthlessness were Frank's hole cards. He dispassionately dispatched those in his way while feeding the monkey on the backs of rich and poor, addicted black folks of New York City and Jersey. Some of the needle stick scenes are a bit much especially with dirty diapered children running nearby through the halls of the projects where many of the junkies lived and probably still do.
Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a fictional compilation of several honest cops who ultimately cuff Frank for his crimes and send him to prison for a reduced sentence. At the film's close, Frank has struck a deal with Richie and blows the whistle on all the on-the-take cops who allowed his drug commerce to go forward. It seems Frank and Richie have something in common: neither likes bad cops--- but for different reasons.
"Gangster" moves mostly in parallel threads: Frank getting his crack smack sales force grounded after his mentor, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) dies of natural causes; Ritchie with his gang of undercover narcs trying to figure why Gotham's Mafioso junk commerce is being turned on its head as Frank deals at bargain prices.
Several small roles are cast so well in "Gangster." Armand Assante is a standout playing an oleaginous Mafia drug boss named, Dominic Cattano. Josh Brolin chilled me in his role as a bad New York City cop known as Detective Trupo. Roger Bart is seen only momentarily as a U.S. Attorney in a smashing confrontational scene over the Lucas case with Crowe's narc character. Bart and Crowe come close to tearing up the set with their acting. Good film school stuff.
A larger but still small role is taken by the veteran, Ruby Dee. (Good to see her again.) She's Mama Lucas, Frank's mother. Much of what Frank does is so his mom gets the finer material things in life as well as himself. It's during these moments I got to see Denzel's winning smile as a proud son. Mostly, his disposition is grim and menacing. Dee shows her chops in a scene with Washington as Mama Lucas chastises Frank for his wicked ways, slapping this big, mean guy in the face. He does nothing but scowl back at his mom.
An uncomfortable line for me in the film has Frank likening Bumpy Johnson (the crooked mentor) to Martin Luther King, Jr. Although this suggests the warped lens Frank sees the world through, the comparison won't likely go down well for many moviegoers, black and white, who have a different idea about Dr. King and his legacy.
"American Gangster" doesn't have much of a new idea about good and bad cops doing what each kind does to or for drug dealers in an urban setting---it's a road well traveled--- but the film is compelling. Its duration is just short of three hours, but for me the time flew by. A good sign of a film well done.
"American Gangster" preview.