"American Gangster" tells the story of Frank Lucas, who, for a time in the 60's and 70's, ran the most successful narcotics operation in Harlem. The film is based on a "New York" magazine article from an interview with the real-life Lucas, so it must be based on fact, right?*
It tells the parallel stories of Lucas' rise in power on the Harlem streets by "cutting out the middle-man" smuggling in raw opium from Thailand, and manufacturing a concoction called "Blue Magic" that had twice the potency, but at half the cost, with the story of the cop who eventually busted him, a down on his luck detective named Richie Roberts who's too honest to be trusted by the New York Police. While Lucas starts to make his version of the American Dream, Roberts continually has his legs knocked out from under him--his wife leaves him, takes his kid, he struggles with classes to better himself (public speaking, law), his partner turns junkie, and implicates him in a murder. The movie drips with irony at every turn, constantly showing the easy path of Crime and the tough road of Law Enforcement, that recalls that epitome of the thesis-"The French Connection."** In a montage of Thanksgiving, Lucas is shown with his entire family at a stereotypical Thanksgiving spread (and in one of the more heavy-handed of Scott's directorial choices frames it like Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Want" painting, while Roberts, makes a cold sandwich of canned turkey-spread and potato chips over the kitchen sink. But then the director re-ups it by showing junkies shooting up between their toes in grimy bathrooms, and a mother passed out in bed, while her child is screaming in the room. Whatever glamour Lucas may enjoy, Scott is particular about showing the cost in human misery. No one gets off Scott-free.
Sometimes the tables are turned. Lucas occasionally has troubles in the operation, and however much he may espouse core-values of honesty and integrity, the very nature of his business starts to rot his dreams for his family. And the more Roberts investigates, the closer he comes to his target, the more his team of "Untouchables" gel, and his investigation and life begin to come into focus.
Ridley Scott misses as much as he hits. For every good film (The Duellists, Alien, Black Hawk Down, Thelma and Louise), there is a terrible one (Legend, 1492, Someone To Watch Over Me, G.I. Jane, Hannibal, A Good Year), and some that have just enough quality in them (Blade Runner, Gladiator, Matchstick Men) that his directorial brio can compensate for weaknesses and messy scripts. But here, he has a cracker-jack script by Steve Zaillian, no worries about creating "a world" out of whole cloth, and a stunning cast that includes Clarence Williams III (uncredited), Joe Morton, Armand Assante, Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding, Jr., the magnificent Ruby Dee, Ted Levine, Roger Bart, Carla Gugino, Chiwetel Ojiofor, and top-lined by Russell Crowe, but especially Denzel Washington. When these two heavy-weights get together, their scenes crackle with invention. Everybody does incredibly lived-in work.
And nobody less than the director. This is Ridley Scott's best film in ages. At times the details get a bit murky, but Scott does so to keep a multi-faceted story moving at a brisk pace. And he pulls off some amazing little camera tricks that stun, and some of the most unpretentious action-sequences put to film. Those action sequences are rough stuff--the film begins with the immolation and point-blank gundown of a mob rival--and the junkie sequences are harrowing, so one should be warned. But missing it would be missing a great film.
"American Gangster" is a full-price ticket
* a casual glance at the internet will disprove a lot of myth from fact. Lucas did not work for crime boss "Bumpy" Johnson for 15 years, but five (he's been in prison before), he was not with him when he died, did not marry "Miss Puerto Rico," or own "Small's" nightclub. And that's just the start for Lucas. The real Roberts is a bit miffed that to attract Crowe, they beefed up his part by making him more of a loser. Lucas admits that the film is "about 20% true."