By Vic Holtreman
Short version: As usual, Denzel Washington gives an intense performance in this fascinating story of a drug kingpin's daring and rapid rise to power.
American Gangster is based on the true story of Frank Lucas, and African American drug kingpin that rose to power in the New York metropolitan area during the Vietnam war. Lucas is played by Denzel Washington in the uncharacteristic role of bad guy, but much like similar Mafia characters from other films, with a counterbalanced code of ethics when it comes to family. The film was directed by Ridley Scott and also stars Russel Crowe as Richie Roberts, the (almost only) honest cop who has been tasked with putting a dent in the drug trade in the area.
The film opens in 1968, with Lucas as the driver for the former area druglord Bumpy Johnson for many years, who also served as a mentor to Lucas. Of course by "driver" I also mean bodyguard and enforcer, as demonstrated by a rather gruesome opening scene that shows us just what sort of thing Lucas is capable of. Johnson dies very early on and is demonstrated to have that peculiar ethical split that compartmentalizes his criminal activities from the rest of his life. Despite the fact that he ruins lives by supplying heroin to the population, he laments the arrival of supermarkets and discount electronics stores due to the loss of customer service and at Thanksgiving he passes out turkeys to the poor. Probably in the same neighborhoods housing some of the drug addicts he is supplying.
When "Bumpy" dies (amazingly, of natural causes) a power vacuum is left among the gangsters, and folks who do not have any of his sense of fairness (I use the term very loosely) are trying to inser themselves as the new "big man." Lucas doesn't like what he sees and decides to step up and take over the organization. He moves in quickly and with brutal efficiency and quickly establishes himself as the new "boss."
His problem is that he's competing with the well established Mafia for drug traffic, making it difficult to really break out to the next level of monetary and positional power. He comes up with a plan that will catapult him far beyond the Italian's power and money by going directly to the source of the drug in Asia, getting it "direct from the manufacturer," and shipping it to the U.S. on military transports from Vietnam by bribing people along the chain of command.
Soon he's selling heroin that is twice as potent and costs half as much as what's currently available on the street and within a very short time he becomes insanely wealthy and powerful. He brings his extended family up from down south to help him expand his network and the reach of his distribution.
The other side of the story involves Richie Roberts (Crowe), the honest cop who has police work in his blood, to the detriment of everything including his family. He and his partner stumble across one million dollars in unmarked bills, and despite his partners' strong insistence that they just keep the money, he decides to turn it in.
As it turns out the reason his partner did not want to turn in the money was not just greed. The police force at the time was so incredibly corrupt, that having it known that they actually turned in this quantity of money marked them as untrustworthy and made them pariahs.
Eventually Richie's honesty leads to him being selected to head up a task force to attack the drug problem in NYC. He hand picks a few select cops that are as honest as he is, and he has run ins with some seriously corrupt higher level officers along the way.
Ridley Scott does a great job of sucking you into the late 1960s/early 1970s and really captures the culture of the time and of the Lucas family. In order to try to give us a complete picture, I did find the film meandering a little bit as well as a bit longer than I would have liked. Those are only minor nits, however.
American Gangster is a compelling and fascinating look at Lucas' rise to power, punctuated by amazing performances by both Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. While Crowe was excellent, losing himself in yet another role, Denzel was mesmerizing despite the fact that he played essentially the same person he does in many films, except with a darker twist. The man is just plain intense and wonderful to watch on screen.
If you've been craving a serious drama and don't mind some pretty intense violence (which fits completely within the context of the film), I highly recommend you check out American Gangster.