Pop culture’s fascination with New York City and its criminal underworld can be traced back through the annals of cinema lore. Flicks like “Carlito’s Way” and “The Godfather” told the story of hungry young men fighting to seize the American dream the only way they knew how, by leaving their rivals in a haze of blood, broken bones and spent bullets.
In his gritty, poignant epic “American Gangster” Ridley Scott has chosen to chronicle the real life experiences of ’70s Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas, played masterfully by Denzel Washington, and the rugged detective who brought him down, Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe.
Lucas is a family man with little education who spends 15 years of his life assisting his mentor and friend Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, the former king of Harlem whose life was chronicled in the 1997 cult favorite “Hoodlum.”
As “Bumpy” is lecturing Lucas on the perils of industry, displaying his contempt for Harlem’s slow push to commercialization, he dies of an apparent heart attack. Spurred on by the death of his father figure, Lucas fills “Bumpy’s” folk-hero shoes and begins to build his own heroin empire based out of Harlem. With the assistance of a relative placed in the army, Lucas finds a new drug cache in a war-torn Vietnam and begins to use Army personnel and vehicles to smuggle his stash into the country.
Meanwhile, cop by day and aspiring prosecutor by night Richie Roberts is feeling the pressures of being an honest cop during a time when law enforcement is mired by money laundering and drug use. Marked as a leper by his police brethren when he refuses to claim nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills as his own, Roberts struggles with family woes and fellow corrupt cops until he is commissioned by the Feds to spearhead a special investigation into the appearance of a new 100 percent pure heroin dubbed “Blue Magic.”
Roberts also delves into the corrupt NYPD’s narcotics unit, namely the actions of a ruthless greasy detective named Trupo, played by Josh Brolin.
Steven Zaillian’s screenplay shows some striking similarities between the hero and anti-hero’s lives and actions. Washington once again proves he can play a charming and ruthless villain, akin to his performance in “Training Day,” as he presents us with a calm, reserved, calculating version of Lucas, providing just the right amount of fury whenever Lucas is pushed by his enemies.
Meanwhile Crowe’s gutsy, morose Roberts is an accessible character, identifiable with the audience as he fights a seemingly hopeless war against the grandiose gangland characters and the rarely cooperative troops of the narcotics bureau.
The racial tensions of the movie help ground it in its time frame. A Christmas Day montage displays images of the now-wealthy Lucas family enjoying a turkey dinner in their lush home juxtaposed against depictions of young black men and women dead from OD’ing on “Blue Magic.” The scene displays the horrifying fact that in trying to take care of Harlem, Lucas irreparably damaged its residents as well.
The movie’s biggest selling point is that its wide breadth of plots and sub-plots doesn’t feel like too much to swallow during its 157-minute run time. The movie flows well, pumping the viewer full of information while still taking the time to personalize Lucas and Roberts.
Part social commentary, part crime flick, “American Gangster” is a phenomenal work by Ridley Scott that may find itself compared with the standard bearers of the crime genre much sooner than the critics think.