Drug lords don’t get the credit they deserve as entrepreneurs. Probably because their customer base is comprised of desperate addicts who’d snort cocaine cut with laundry detergent and sand if they thought it would result in an acceptable high. But Frank Lucas, the ’70s-era dope king and subject of Ridley Scott’s propulsive, almost-masterpiece, built an empire by selling a “product that’s better than the competition at a price that’s lower than the competition.” The African-American Lucas, whose story garnered attention in a 2000 New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson, treated drug distribution like any other business, usurping New York’s mafia-controlled drug-trafficking trade and earning his very own coterie of cops assigned to track him down.
In crafting their star-fueled Oscar magnet, Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian do some trafficking themselves, mainly in counterfeit urban gangster currency, struck from plates carved by Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese. Indeed, much of American Gangster ’s considerable effect is merely a contact high from a long-ago buzz. But with Lucas as its subject, the film finds a juicy new vein to tap. The North Carolina-born criminal mastermind deserves scorn for the life he chose, but in climbing to the top of his sordid industry, he behaved like any good capitalist, one of the film’s major moral ambiguities.
Having won an Oscar for playing another morally compromised character in Training Day, the supremely assured and incredibly watchable Denzel Washington gives Lucas the slither and strut of a street punk who’s just bought the answers to the final exam. But when we first meet Lucas, he’s the subservient first lieutenant to Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), Harlem’s reigning crime boss. When Johnson dies unexpectedly, Lucas sees a vacuum and concocts a plan to fill it.
Around the same time, New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) finds a million dollars in drug money stashed in the trunk of a car. Departmental policy at the time practically requires that Richie keep the loot, but instead he turns it in, defiantly counting the cash at the police station. From then on, he’s a stationhouse pariah, hated by his co-workers and, coincidentally, by his wife, who wants a divorce and custody of their only child.
As movie dynamics go, the rich, happy criminal and the troubled mess of a cop is hardly showroom new. But while Scott and his team don’t exactly make it fresh, they do make us forget how old it is. Unlike the flashier drug dealers of the ’70s, Lucas dressed well, ate breakfast at the same diner every morning and resisted becoming an addict himself. What put him in the big leagues was personally traveling to Thailand and buying pure smack, which he smuggled into the States in the coffins of Vietnam soldiers.
Branded Blue Magic, his top-quality junk was completely pure, and he priced it cheaper than drugs sold by the neighborhood’s two-bit pushers. As the money rolls in, Lucas imports his five brothers (including an underutilized Chiwetel Ejiofor) from North Carolina to help facilitate his rapidly expanding empire. As the streets become flooded with uncut heroin in little blue bags, Roberts is tasked with finding out who’s responsible.
American Gangster has the virtue of being very good, certainly one of this year’s best, but the vice of not being as good as it wants to be. Scott’s forte has never been contemporary urban grit, and one can easily compile a list of directors who’d make the film less polished but more authentic. The role of Richie doesn’t afford Crowe the opportunity to expand himself or the notion of the beleaguered cop. His contribution is merely being Russell Crowe, although he effectively deemphasizes his built-in air of invincibility. Like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in Heat, American Gangster ’s two alpha actors meet only briefly. In a juicy tête-à-tête towards the end, Lucas cuts a deal, his confidence slowly fading upon realizing that Roberts has finally nailed him.
While the movie doesn’t exalt Frank Lucas, there’s no doubt Scott respects the bootstrap accomplishment of an African-American not only muscling in on dangerous, alien turf but excelling at it. Still, there’s no dearth of addicts shooting up between their toes, and even Frank’s mother (the estimable Ruby Dee) slaps him in the face upon realizing the depths of his depravity.
But American Gangster is too cool a customer to distinctively separate Frank’s business acumen from Frank’s business. That many of the dead and damaged are fellow African-Americans is just an inconvenient truth, best left for another movie. Indeed, we even feel sorry for Lucas in the film’s final shot, which deposits him in a changed world he’s no longer equipped to conquer. Yet we’re not supposed to lament that it’s a world of designer drugs and wasted lives that Lucas himself created.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, John Ortiz, John Hawkes and RZA
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Steve Zaillian
Producers: Brian Grazer and Ridley Scott
Genre: Crime drama
Rating: R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality
Running time: 157 min.
Release date: November 2, 2007