American Gangster

Film Review by Jeffrey Winters

“American Gangster,” stars Oscar-winning actors Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, a tough cop with a strong sense of integrity and driven behavior, and his nemesis Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, who becomes the largest heroin gangster czar of Harlem, New York in the 1970’s Vietnam War era. The saga of Frank Lucas is a true story.

Director Ridley Scott teams with screenwriter Steven Zaillian and immediately defines the film by using strong character studies and two distinct story lines which merge at the end. This approach to the American gangster film, does not rely on plot gimmicks and car chases. There is violence, but not tons of inane action. The filmmakers assemble a great cast (Ruby Dee, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin) with complex human touches that elevate the film to an enjoyable narrative that is not dumbed down.

“American Gangster,” starts with Denzel Washington accompanying his mentor Harlem crime boss Bumpy Johnson along the streets of Harlem. Suddenly, Bumpy has a heart attack. Lucas (Washington) decides to take over the heroin trade in Harlem. He has patience and is clever. He cuts out the Italian Mafia as middle man. He does this by flying to Thailand and going into the jungle where the poppies are grown and converted into heroin. Lucas (Washington) works out a deal to ship the higher quality heroin back to America. He calls his heroin “Blue Magic” and sells purer heroin for less money.

This business strategy makes Lucas more powerful than certain Mafia families. Armand Assante plays a Mafia Don who tells Lucas (Washington) that a black man can’t undo the order of things. Assante has the sneer, arrogance and delivery down. As is true to New York street life, every ethnic group is represented, matter of fact about who they are, and subject to racial slurs.

When the film begins, Pietro Scalia beautifully edits the parallel stories of Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas. Roberts (Crowe) is hated by other cops because he turned in close to a million dollars of drug money he found in a car trunk. He didn’t distribute the money among crooked cops, so they alienate him. He’s an outsider who is chosen by the Feds to lead a secret task force who bypass the NYPD in their search for top importers of heroin.

Richie has no idea that Lucas is the most ruthless and successful heroin dealer in New York until he sees him at the Ali-Frazier fight dressed in a Chinchilla coat and hat with the best seats in town. This alerts him. Who is this man? The chase begins.

This sets us up for wanting to see the dynamic Denzel Washington interact with Russell Crowe. Remember the 1995 film “Heat,” where Robert De Niro is a master crook and Al Pacino is a driven cop? Finally, they sit opposite each other in a bland restaurant and talk. Their conversation was far better than the film itself. In “American Gangster” we know Richie and Lucas will meet, but Ridley Scott keeps us waiting until the end of a long two hour and forty minute film. When they are finally alone together in a room, each charismatic actor plays the part with respect and an inner dignity rather than a loud demeanor. Both Crowe and Washington are capable of stealing the scene, but neither does.

The 1970’s Harlem and the other locales, including Bangkok, Vietnam, Queens, NY and Fort Bragg offer realistic atmosphere. Scenes in the black projects are scary for the poverty and depravity. “American Gangster” is a quality film, especially if you like the gangster genre.