US / 176 minutes (unrated), 158 minutes (rated) / color / Imagine, Relativity, Scott Free, Film Rites, Universal Dir: Ridley Scott Pr: Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott Scr: Steven Zaillian Story: “The Return of Superfly” (2000 magazine article, New York) by Mark Jacobson Cine: Harris Savides Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, Clarence Williams III, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, RZA, Lymari Nadal, Yul Vazquez, Ruby Dee, Idris Elba, Carla Gugino, Joe Morton, Common, Richie Coster, Jon Polito, Kevin Corrigan, Roger Guenveur Smith, Malcolm Goodwin, Ric Young, Roger Bart, Tip Harris, Kadee Strickland, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Norman Reedus, Melissia Hill, Bari K. Willerford, Skyler Fortgang.
A gangster movie that claims to be based on a true story although, by all accounts, it’s largely an exercise in mythopoeia.
In Harlem in 1968, ruthless yet philosophically inclined, intelligent and often goodheartedly generous gangster Bumpy Johnson (Williams, bizarrely uncredited) dies of heart failure while he and his chauffeur and right-hand man Frank Lucas (Washington) are staring in dismay at the contents of a discount store. Assuming Frank is just a nobody, gangsters like Tango (Elba) move in on Bumpy’s old turf, little realizing they’re up against a criminal genius. It’s not long before Frank hits on the notion of dispensing with the middleman in the heroin racket, instead buying it directly from sources in Southeast Asia and bribing US service personnel to bring the dope into the US aboard military transports returning from the still-raging Vietnam War. His other major import is of his extended family from North Carolina to be his employees/partners, a job that his brothers willingly take on after they witness him coldbloodedly murdering the arrogant Tango on a crowded Harlem sidewalk.
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) goes in search of a drug supplier.
At the same time, Newark cop Richie Roberts (Crowe) is earning himself the undiluted loathing of the rest of his PD through being honest. When he and partner Javier J. Rivera (Ortiz) come across nearly $1 million in unmarked bills and, rather than stealing it, hand it in, Rivera reckons their days are numbered: crooked cops, he reckon, will murder colleagues they reckon might turn them in. Rivera himself is a junkie and, it proves, a murderer. When he dies of an overdose there’s no one else in the Newark PD who’ll work with Richie.
At that point Captain Lou Toback (Levine) enlists Richie to head up a new task force, based in Essex County NJ, to tackle the issue of drug trafficking in the tristate area: their task is to ignore the small players and go for the kingpins. He gathers to him a select team of honest undercover cops, his right-hand man becoming Freddie Spearman (Hawkes). Their problem is that they don’t know who the kingpin is who’s come to dominate the drugs trade through marketing Blue Magic, a new and unusually pure (and unusually cheap) heroin. They assume for a while it must be the Mafia, such as the don Dominic Cattano (Assante), but Richie eventually realizes that line of inquiry is going nowhere.
The clue comes at a Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier bout in NYC. Frank attends and, for once, instead of his customary unobtrusive suit, is wearing a highly noticeable chinchilla coat and hat bought as a present for him by his fiancée—soon to be wife—Eva Kendo (Nadal). Richie and his men are also at the fight, and Richie realizes, since Frank and Eva have seats even better than the Mafia bosses were able to get, that Frank must be high in the hierarchy. For reasons of racial stereotyping, it does not yet occur to him that Frank could be the big boss: “What we want is whoever Frank Lucas is actually working for.” (The theme of the cops being misled by their unthinking racially based assumptions is present in the movie, but carefully understated.)
It’s fairly obvious how things are going to progress from here. Richie and his team do indeed bring Frank down—Frank’s enterprise being, of course, gravely hampered by the Vietnam War coming to an end. Richie having qualified for the New Jersey bar, he has the rare privilege of being able to prosecute Frank himself; in the midst of the trial, in a long private chat between the two men, Frank tries to bribe him and then, discovering this is useless, offers to sell out other major drugs dealers . . . and is astonished to discover that the names Richie really wants are those of all the corrupt NJ and NYC cops, personified by NYPD Detective Trupo (Brolin)—those cops who, before Frank’s ascendancy, essentially controlled the tristate drugs trade, recycling whatever was seized in raids back into the marketplace, and who have been trying to regain that position. According to the last fifteen minutes or so of the movie, Frank’s testimony helped Richie arrest 150 criminals, of whom many (most?) were corrupt cops; in the process the two men become friends, with Richie, having resigned his badge, serving as Frank’s defense lawyer. When the vicious, entirely venal Trupo blows his own brains out, it’s hard to suppress a cheer.
Interwoven with the straightforward gangster/maverick cop tale is a somewhat clichéd narrative about Richie losing custody of his young son Michael (Fortgang) to his estranged wife Laurie (Gugino); Richie’s propensity for promiscuity is typified by an interlude when, during a preliminary divorce hearing, he has power sex in a disused courthouse interview room with his attorney, Sheila Dickerson (Strickland). It’s hard to understand the point of this subplot: it seems to add nothing to the characterization of Richie. (After one or two more evidences of his promiscuity, suddenly the theme drops out of sight.)
The cinematography is a major star here—perhaps too much of a star, since some of the relatively few negative criticisms of the movie claim that its visual beauty detracts from the grittiness a gangster movie should have. Well, maybe. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather II (1974) have many moments of visual beauty too, yet if anything those moments add to their power. American Gangster shares more than this aspect with those two movies. There’s a sequence where, while the Lucas family is having its Thanksgiving dinner—holding hands around the table and saying grace and all—we see intercuts of some of the dreadful drug-related things that are happening in order that Frank be able to earn and keep his fortune. In case we don’t notice the reference, there’s a long sequence toward the end of the movie where scenes of Frank, Eva and Frank’s aged Mama (Dee) partaking in hymns at church are intercut with scenes of Richie and his team taking down, with maximum gore, Frank’s processing plant in Newark’s Steven Crane housing project.
Dee, for her role as Frank’s mom, was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress; the only other Oscar nod the movie got was for Art Direction (Arthur Max, Beth A. Rubino). At the Golden Globes it was nominated for Best Movie, Best Director and Best Actor (Washington). This was more or less the pattern for its accolades elsewhere: some nominations, no wins. (A rare exception was a Screen Actors Guild Award for Dee as Best Supporting Actress.) It seems odd the movie should have been so neglected, because it boasts a stellar performance from Washington—superbly nuanced, completely convincing us of a character who for the most time is as elegantly civilized as an Oxford don yet who’s capable at any moment of bursting into brutal, even murderous violence—and a very good one from Crowe.
I don’t often recommend Wikipedia’s movie entries here, but the Wikipedia article on American Gangster is full of good background information about the production.
On Amazon.com: American Gangster (Single Disc / Unrated / Extended Version)