American Gangster

Director: Ridley Scott

“They look at us like we’re the help,” Eva, Frank Lucas’s wife shares when the two leave old-world styled veteran gangster Dominic Cattano’s home mid-way through Ridley Scott’s newest film. Based on the magazine article by Mark Jacobson that was adapted by one of our greatest screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Falcon and the Snowman, Schindler’s List, Awakenings, Searching for Bobby Fischer), American Gangster is one of those rare films that starts out feeling like something we’ve seen before with an overly glossy and sometimes cheesy, exploitative set-up for the first portion that somehow resurrects itself halfway through to produce an infinitely superior second half that’s simply perfection. The details offered in the beginning are important—we meet Frank Lucas, a former driver and right-hand man to Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson (the same man who influenced Coppola’s Cotton Club) as he watches with admiration as a fellow African American rise from nothing to become successful in his chosen field that’s usually monopolized by the mafia. After Bumpy dies in a wholesale store no less, Frank decides to put those life lessons to good use turning a criminal venture into one that takes the very foundations of capitalism to succeed—he will find a product that’s in demand, create the very best that he can and cut out the middle-man to maximize profits. The fact that he picks heroin appears like a nonchalant side-thought in the film… that is until he begins realizing that the best place to get the drugs would be from where American servicemen are getting hooked. Soon Frank flies over to Bangkok to go directly to the source and creates a diabolically clever yet tragically amoral scheme to hide large quantities of heroin inside large army cargo planes carrying our deceased servicemen back to the states. His name brand drug Blue Magic is quickly the most sought after substance on the Harlem streets and while most crime films glamorize or leave in the background the fact that these villainous men (often depicted as folk heroes onscreen) are getting rich off of others' misery, admirably Ridley Scott doesn’t pull any punches. There are many shots depicting the itchy, sweaty, and bloody drive of addicts who may or may not survive a day after scoring not to mention the stable of drug cutting women (nude so that way they cannot steal anything) who run Frank’s business and seem to disturbingly represent a kind of creepy enslavement that stays in the back of our mind as we watch him amass a wealth of more than one hundred and fifty million dollars, purchase his mother a large home, marry Miss Puerto Rico and bring most of his family in from North Carolina to help run his empire.

Of course, when there’s a robber, there’s always a cop and Academy Award winning actor Russell Crowe turns in another fine, understated portrayal as Richie Roberts, a police detective who attends night school to study criminal law. Crowe’s Roberts is a bright womanizing police detective who instantly makes viewers recall the films of the 60’s and 70’s such as Serpico and French Connection when we realize that he’s unpopular in his department because honesty and ethical responsibility caused him to return one million dollars he found in unmarked bills in the trunk of an automobile. He can’t leave his usual beat fast enough and it’s not before long that he’s heading up his own team to combat the burgeoning drug problem that’s leaving scores of bodies in abandoned buildings and on the streets and soon, he finds himself on the tail of Frank. He’s not the only cop that’s caught on—following up his role as greedy dimwitted cowboy in No Country for Old Men, chameleon-like Josh Brolin dominates the screen with his snake-like portrayal of a greedy, corrupt cop out to blackmail criminals to help pad his paycheck.

While there’s enough plot involved to make the roughly two hour and forty minute film even longer, it ends up being the perfect length due to the by-the-numbers beginning that later evolves into riveting and exciting craftsmanship that is on par with Ridley Scott’s best. In addition to being a superb director of action and one particular frenetic hand-held chase that jolts us from our reverie of the beautiful smooth steadicam sequences preceding it is just one example, Mr. Scott is also a great director of actors and Washington and Crowe are even more charged when the two finally share a scene in what had been a Michael Mann Heat like division of the worlds. However, it’s still a glossy piece of Hollywood pulp that cribs from Scorsese’s structuring and Coppola’s ironic counterpoints (a religious "Amazing Grace" intercut with violence similar to The Godfather’s baptism) and one that’s caused some to note the glaring historical inaccuracies involved, despite Lucas and Roberts’ roles as consultants. New York Daily News writer Stanley Crouch cited the article and the BET documentary of the same name as Scott’s film for their adherence to the truth in not overly glamorizing Lucas who, going against the sophisticated portrayal by Washington was not only “illiterate and could not count,” (a fact that would’ve actually made Scott’s film even more fascinating, but had also put out and later rescinded a murder contract on one of his own brothers. In a film that some are referring to as a black Scarface, it is sad that we do have another somewhat fabricated and heroic portrayal of crooks as successful entrepreneurs and masters of capitalism but at the same token, I do applaud Scott in making sure that we’re always brutally aware of just how the man made his money and how many lives were affected (and ruined) by it.