Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is welcoming his brothers, cousins and nephews to their new life in Harlem with a celebratory lunch. He's brought them here from rural Carolina to guarantee a loyal crew now that he's all set up to become the number one drug dealer north of 110th Street. Then he spots one dude, a loudmouth dealer by the name of Tango, who might have a problem with that walking down the street.
Cool as ice cream, Frank empties out the sugar bowl and walks out of the café. Then he offers the Tango the empty bowl - for tips. It's a calculatedly grievous insult. "What are you going to do? Shoot me here in the street?" demands his outraged rival. And that's exactly what Lucas does: right in the centre of his forehead. Then he goes back to his lunch. "Where was I?" he asks, nonchalantly. He's made his point and you can be sure Harlem has got the message.
This gesture isn't entirely typical. Lucas is capable of doing whatever is necessary - the very first shot in the film finds him setting fire to some foot soldier who's crossed the line - but with rare exceptions his violence is controlled. He's ruthless, yes, but only as a means to an end. He wants to be rich, like his old mentor, Bumpy (Clarence Williams III). And richer still: he wants to be "white man wealthy".
And so it is that this country boy turned driver to a drug kingpin bides his time when that kingpin dies. He's nowhere on the ladder; a lackey whose meal ticket just passed away. But he's been watching and learning, and when he sees a business opportunity - soldiers returning from Vietnam still high on the local heroin - he grabs it with both hands, taking a trip out to Indochina to do the deal, and paying out enough backhanders to cut the US military into the operation.
Set at the height of the Vietnam War, 1968-1975, Ridley Scott's star-driven double-header harbors a certain admiration for this smart black market entrepreneur. By eliminating the middleman he's able to undercut the competition by two hundred percent, and with a superior product. In any other field he'd be the toast of Wall Street. In the drug business, it's safer to stay under the radar.
While Frank Lucas is living the American Dream - he marries a Puerto Rican beauty queen (Lymari Nadal) and buys a Long Island mansion - Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is grappling with an evening class in law. His wife wants nothing more to do with him and is taking the kid with her. He's a pariah on the force after discovering, then handing in a million dollars in unmarked bills. Who could trust a guy like that?
Invited to set up a special narcotics unit with men of his own choosing, Roberts has to engage in some social anthropology of his own to figure out the invisible power structure behind the booming heroin epidemic… The big break in the case comes when Lucas lowers his guard at Ali vs Frazier. His seats are better than the mafia's.
A heavyweight by design, American Gangster clocks in at two and a half hours and packs a solid wallop. Whether it can live up to sky-high expectations I'm not sure. Even Ridley Scott has found himself name-checking The Godfather and The French Connection; both pertinent comparisons up to a point, but suggestive of fireworks that don't quite ignite here.
I was reminded more of zealous New York thrillers by Sidney Lumet - films like Prince Of The City and Serpico - not just because Richie Roberts might have been the model for those straight arrow, squeaky wheel cops, but because Steve Zaillian's screenplay doggedly puts the focus on process and ethics not action and adrenaline. (Josh Brolin, as a venally corrupt NYPD detective, and Armand Assante as a mafia don could easily be interlopers from Lumet's moral universe: they're larger than life but aggressively true to it.) The crucial difference would be that these films reflected on pressingly recent events. Scott's is an exercise in movie mythology, not political commentary.
It's also true that TV series like The Sopranos and The Wire have raised the bar by exploring this kind of material in depth a mere movie can only hint at. Zaillian's adept script is packed with interesting detail, but scene-for-scene, there's a creeping sense of déja-vu in the police procedural aspects.
Still, a movie has its own dynamic - and in this case, two powerhouse character portraits from Washington and Crowe. There's something irresistible about the way Zaillian's parallel narratives gradually converge, the black and white mirror images of the dedicated cop and the consummate operator drawing ever nearer.
Packing a few extra pounds, Crowe brings his own considerable scowling integrity to Roberts, every inch a street level guy except for his determination to stay pure. But in a gangster movie it's the bad guy you come to see - and here Denzel kills. Whether it's fastidiously demonstrating the correct way to remove bloodstains from an alpaca rug ("Don't rub. Blot.") or patiently explaining the concept of trademark infringement to a rival dealer (Cuba Gooding Jnr as flamboyant Nicky Barnes), every move he makes speaks to Frank's pride and passion, the contained fury of an invisible man striving to get out from under. It's the American way, and he never spares a thought for the consequences.
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