Eldrick “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), the drug kingpin of Harlem, passes away without an heir to his legacy. The one who seizes control of the operation is Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). He’s ruthless, ambitious, and hungry for an empire of his own. Lucas runs his operation like a business, methodically, with the help of his four younger brothers and numerous cousins. He builds himself a massive network of suppliers who smuggle the drug in from the Far East. And along the way, Lucas leads his family, stressing the importance of hard work, discipline, and integrity. He takes an interest in his nephew’s promising baseball career. He takes his mother to church. And he remains the wealthiest, most powerful gangster in America.
Lucas’s drugs – which he doesn’t use himself, of course – are a smash hit in Harlem. It’s called “blue magic” and it’s cheap, easy to find, and extremely addictive. Lucas, considered a man of the people by the locals, manages his empire in every facet possible, executing rivals with impunity and violently discouraging copycat dealers and distributors.
Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a New Jersey detective who is basically the only honest guy in his department. Despite his domestic problems, Roberts is a hard-charging, reasonably ethical cop who is determined to take care of the burgeoning drug underworld of NYC.
Roberts assembles a ragtag unit to investigate Lucas and his family, including the suppliers who transport the dope on planes from Southeast Asia. Lucas’s network is nearly impenetrable, but Roberts won’t give up without a fight.
This gritty, explosive film is based on the real-life story. It’s a highly-realistic portrayal of 1970s Harlem, and the domestic war that America waged against drugs while fighting another war in Vietnam.
Washington and Crowe, both Academy Award winners, deliver outstanding performances. They’re two of my favorite actors for a reason. Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men), Ted Levine (The Silence of the Lambs), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Men of Honor) and Armand Assante (Fatal Instinct) co-star. The beautiful Lymari Nadal (a relative newcomer) plays Eva, Lucas’s Puerto Rican wife.
Ruby Dee was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her brief-but-memorable turn as Frank Lucas’s mother. Rappers Tip “T.I.” Harris and Common round out the cast.
This film, available on DVD in both the original version and the unrated extended version, is outstanding. Directed by the brilliant Ridley Scott, who won the Oscar for Gladiator, American Gangster is knockout entertainment. Hailed as a “gritty masterpiece” by GQ, this film shows the turmoil in America during the 70s and the ongoing drug issues plaguing urban America. Scott, who had previously worked with Crowe and Washington, is helped by a terrific script penned by Steve Zaillian. The movie was also co-produced by Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) and distributed by Universal Studios in partnership with Scott Free and Relativity Media.
In terms of content, this film is intended for mature audiences. It earns an R rating from the opening shots (in which Lucas lights a man on fire and shoots him repeatedly) to the closing credits. The drug use, pervasive strong language, and intense violence are all concerns for objective viewers. But there’s also plenty of positive stuff to get from this film. American Gangster shows the fleeting nature of money, glory, and fame – especially when it comes from objectionable places. It glorifies perseverance and the pursuit of decency and justice. It condemns crooked cops and low-life individuals, and highlights the difference between morality and relativism.
This film should be approached with caution. But I highly recommend it for a number of reasons: namely the acting, the writing, and the message of defending the law – even if it’s unpopular.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Steven Zaillian
Produced by Ridley Scott and Brian Grazer
Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Ruby Dee, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lymari Nadal, Albert Jones, Tip “T.I” Harris, Common, Idris Elba, Warner Miller, Malcolm Goodwin, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.