Directed by Ridley Scott, produced by Brian Grazer, written by Steven Zaillian, and starring powerhouse actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, it would have been a shocking surprise if American Gangster had turned out to be anything less than a juicy piece of entertainment. I’m a huge fan of this expansive piece of storytelling, and despite mostly favorable reviews and big box office, I think it’s one of Scott’s most underrated movies. Everything from the top-notch production values, the larger-than-life story, the salty dialogue, and the sly, cool aesthetic of Scott and master cinematographer Harris Savides (Zodiac, The Game, Birth, Elephant) all combined for a thrilling true-crime saga that was never dull and never sagged once during its close to three hour run time. Denzel Washington, in a thoroughly commanding performance, portrayed Frank Lucas, a smart and classy businessman whose business, it turns out, is heroin. Lots of it. Lucas, who for years was a driver and protégé to Harlem’s original gangster number one, Bumpy Johnson (a sneering Clarence Williams III), takes over the drug trade in New York City after Johnson drops dead from a heart attack.
However, Lucas has bigger plans than Johnson could have ever imagined. After recruiting what seems to be almost all of his extended family from North Carolina (mother, brothers, cousins, etc.) and relocating them to Harlem and surrounding areas, Lucas, in an effort to avoid using a middle-man in his drug operation, used a family connection stretching to the jungles of Vietnam, and traveled to the heart of darkness himself, striking a deal with a heroin manufacturer to bring the drug from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the streets of New York. The potency of this heroin was twice as strong, and with the absence of the middle man, half the cost. This bold maneuvering was made possible by crooked military personnel, who shipped the drugs back to the states in a variety of methods, most notoriously, in the coffins of dead American soldiers. It’s all too wild to be true, but it is, and the way the filmmakers bring you into this constantly shifting and unfolding world is nothing short of fully engrossing.
Running on a parallel track to Lucas’s story is the account of honest-cop Richie Roberts, smoothly under played by bull-dog performer Russell Crowe, in another excellent piece of manly acting. Roberts is the classic case of great cop but bad husband/father. Going through a messy divorce and child custody hearings with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino, super sexy as always), Roberts is as much of a screw up at home as he is a great, truthful cop, one working in an otherwise almost totally corrupt police force. The fact that he doesn’t keep $1 million in unmarked drug-money that he finds in a dealers car, something he easily could have done without every getting caught, instead opting to turn it in as police evidence, is enough to mark him as suspect by his fellow police officers, which doesn’t help him as he moves into the tricky waters of New York City’s drug scene. Roberts catches wind of the new drug trade in the city, and takes it on obsessively. Battling a seriously crooked fellow officer named Trupo, played with menacing glee by Josh Brolin, Roberts is almost a one-man task force; not only is he hounding the drug dealers, he has to watch his back for deceitful detectives who’d rather take bribes than make arrests.
The brilliance of Zaillian’s screenplay is the way that the personal and professional lives of Lucas and Roberts mirror each other, while also being total opposites. Lucas is a family man, the kind of guy who takes his mother to church on Sunday and eats breakfast with all of his brothers. But he’s also the kind of guy who’ll shoot a rival dealer in the head in broad daylight. He’s even not afraid to threaten his brothers and cousins to make a point. Roberts, on the other hand, is a terrible dad and husband, but he operates incredibly as a cop and he loves his job. He even makes time to study for and then take the bar exam. I was reminded of Michael Mann’s masterwork Heat with the back-and-forth of these characters; similar to Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino’s characters, Washington and Crowe are basically the same people, separated by opposite sides of the law, but brought together by a common goal—what they know best.
American Gangster, working almost as two movies in one, allows its two stars to meet, only at the end, also similar to Heat, in a terrific sequence where the two men have an intelligent conversation, rather than a bloody smack-down. Zaillian, no stranger to expensive, populist fare (he’s written Hannibal, Clear & Present Danger, and Mission: Impossible, among many others) is also a master words-man and social commentary purveyor (other credits include A Civil Action, Schindler’s List, All the King’s Men, and Gangs of NY) and the balance that he brings to both stories in American Gangster is measured and smart. Cohesive and engrossing, the story’s dense narrative moves at a fast clip, due also in part to Pietro Scalia’s dynamic film editing, introducing the audience to a bevy of colorful characters and various locations (jungles, city streets, drug houses) in a coherent, unhurried fashion that still carries pep and verve.
Scott directed with energy and 70’s pizzazz, but never became show-offy or garish. Less overtly stylish than his work in films like Gladiator, Prometheus, Black Hawk Down, The Counselor, and Hannibal, Scott gave American Gangster a shadowy, smoky, rich look, with the immaculate production design by frequent collaborator Arthur Max becoming a major asset as well. Taking cues from such crime films as Brian De Palma’s Scarface and The Untouchables, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Scott took this familiar genre and spiced it up a bit, never forgetting about the fascinating procedural at the heart of the story. This is confident, gripping direction of an ambitious script which never loses sight of its tight focus, even when its grander world view is so vividly displayed. And it was nice how Scott infused the film with enough vibrant period detail for two movies, but never allowed his obsession with realistic surroundings to interfere with the intimate moments of his layered plot. He also staged a bravura drug raid/shootout that is the very definition of awesome. Bloody but never gory and gritty at all times, it’s a stunning piece of action directing that ranks up there with the best of these types of set pieces. This is the kind of big-ticket filmmaking that only a craftsman of Scott’s stature could create.