(2007) - Universal
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Steven Zaillian
Denzel Washington Frank Lucas;
Russel Crowe Det. Richie Roberts;
Josh Brolin Det. Reno Trupo;
Lymari Nadal Eva Lucas;
Chiwetel Ejiofor Huey Lucas;
Cuba Gooding Jr NIcky Barnes;
Ruby Dee Mama Lucas;
Clarence Williams III Ellsworth 'Bumpy' Johnson;
Idris Elba Tango;
Ted Levine Captain Lou Toback;
Armand Assante Dominic Cattano;
Carla Gugino Laurie Roberts;
John Hawkes Det. Freddie Spearman;
John Ortiz Det. Javier Rivera;
RZA Det. Moses Jones;
Jon Polito Rossi
" You can be sucessful and have enemies or you can be unsuccessful and have friends "
- Dominic Cattano
“Bumpy was rich, but he wasn't white man rich” Frank explains to his brothers “he wasn't wealthy. He didn’t own his own company. He just managed it.” Frank Lucas wanted to own his own company and he had a plan to do exactly that; his business however was heroin.
In the midst of the Vietnam War Lucas travels to the ‘Golden Triangle’ an area close to the Thailand/Laos/Burma border, home to the illegal fields of opium poppies, to strike a deal to purchase direct pure uncut heroin. Using connections in the Military he ingeniously smuggles it back to the US in the caskets of dead serviceman – "Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier's coffin"?
Frank Lucas was Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson’s driver and right hand man for 15 years; everyday he watched and studied how he ran his criminal empire. Bumpy Johnson, for the uninitiated, was the African American mob boss of Harlem. His death in 1968 left a power vacuum and the pretenders to his throne were caught off guard when of all people it was Bumpy’s chauffeur who stepped forward to fill the void.
Denzel Washington is the supremely confident and charismatic Frank Lucas who is more akin to a CEO of a major corporation than drug lord; indeed he even has a brand ‘Blue Magic’, “a product that's better than the competition at a price that's less than the competition”. Blue Magic branded heroin flooded the streets of 1970’s New York, which the real life Lucas claimed, at its peak, earned him $1 million a day.
The movie opens with Bumpy Johnson lamenting the business model of buying direct from the manufacture “What right do they have cutting out the Suppliers… putting Americans out of work?” Lucas nods in agreement, shortly before Bumpy draws his last breath in an electircal goods store.
However, Lucas is cunningly creative when he decides to buy direct. Cutting out the middleman for him means not buying heroin from the Mafia. Determined that no one is going to own him like they owned Bumpy he ships his own uncut heroin from the Far East. Much to the befuddlement and chagrin of everyone, he even usurps the New York Italian crime families “Is that supposed to be some kind of joke? No fucking nigger has accomplished what the American Mafia hasn’t in a hundred years!” mocks the US Attorney, when told that Lucas is the mastermind behind the drug trafficking.
The tag line for the movie is “There are two sides to the American Dream” so before you even sit your ass down in the cinema you know you’re about to see someone through grit and hard work pursue their goal of making the big time. However, unlike Arthur Miller’s Willie Loman in ‘Death of Salesman’ or John Steinbeck’s George Milton in ‘Of Mice and Men’ tragic heroes who failed to achieve the 'dream’, Lucas does climb to the top of the tree and he’s not afraid to set people on fire; shoot rivals in the head in a busy street; or drag his ass to the jungles of South East Asia to achieve it. However, once you reach the top there’s only one direction you can go and the fall of Frank Lucas is just as compelling as his rise.
Several aspects come together to bring Frank Lucas down, including an eye-catching chinchilla fur coat, but it is Newark Detective Richie Roberts seemingly the only straight cop in the metropolitan tri-state area, who doggedly tracks down the Blue Magic and identifies Lucas at the top of the heroin food chain.
Lucas and Roberts are very much alike. They’re both outsiders in their own worlds. Lucas, an African American beating the Italians at their own game “upsetting the natural order” and Roberts is ostracised by his fellow New Jersey lawmen when he finds and hands in $1 million of cash. “Cops kill cops they can’t trust” we’re told. “A cop who turns in this kind of money says… he’ll turn in cops who take money” and guess what - they’re all on the take.
Brilliant as ever, I was personally delighted to see Denzel take on a Gangster role; he turns in a typically controlled and measured performance, but this is underscored by a simmering rage bubbling just below the surface. On the rare occasions in which the simmering rage reaches the boil it’s usually as a result of the incompetence of others. He brings in his 'Country Boy' relatives from Greensboro, North Carolina to help run his empire - not trusting the City Boys, yet unfortunately for Frank Lucas, he’s the only one who can be Frank Lucas - even his kin are pale imitations who can’t control the urges to overindulge. When he needs to bring them in line he tends to improvise well with what ever inantimate object his at hand, be it a piano lid or car window. Is Lucas a little too perfect? Maybe. He definitely emits a regal quality, but that’s what you get with Denzel - he’s always king of the jungle. Having recently read ‘The Return of Superfly’ Mark Jacobson’s published articles about the real life Lucas, Denzel’s is perhaps not the ideal character portrayal of the man. Ridley Scott’s Harlem drug lord shuns the limelight, “the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.” Ironically on the single occasion that Lucas does let the Superfly out, wearing the now infamous chinchilla coat and matching hat to the Ali and Frazier ‘Fight of the Century’ bout, it catches the eye and puts him on the radar for the first time of Detective Robert’s and also corrupt cop Detective Reno Trupo of the Narcotics Special Investigations Unit.
However, Ridley Scott is not making a documentary, Scott’s American gangster is very much an entrepreneur – successfully moguling in capitalist America and in this sense Denzel is right on the money. He is confident, charming and oozes charisma; he’s married to Miss Puerto Rico - the guy’s a rockstar and we believe he has the qualities to be the CEO of any major legit corporation. Nevertheless, Lucas grew up Greensboro, North Carolina and witnessed first-hand the brutality of those in a position to uphold the law - seeing his 12 year old cousin shot in the mouth by the local PD . His mistrust of the police coupled with his arrival in Harlem and hooking up with Bumpy Johnson, meant his life was always going to be on the streets; the streets he came to own.
Portrayed as outcasts in contrasting worlds, is only half the dynamic of Lucas and Roberts. The Thanksgiving scenes juxtaposition Lucas surrounded by his loved ones tucking into a veritable feast in the confines of a plush New Jersey mansion (the perks of running an illegal criminal empire), with Roberts alone in his scruffy apartment making himself a crisp sandwich (the lifestyle of a civil servant devorting his career to being a god-guy).
Why not check out other gangster flicks
The two alpha males locking horns too is above reproach. Rarely do we see cop and gangster given equal billing with two parallel stories running expertly alongside each other – Michaels Mann’s Heat comes to mind – the fact that Pacino vs De Niro is what my mind conjures up is testimony to Ridley Scott’s gangster flick. I loved American Gangster when I saw it at the cinema and seven years later I still love watching it. I can’t ask for much more than that.
So on one hand Frank Lucas is to be applauded – even admired. His social mobility from a dirt poor African American in Greensboro North Carolina to rising above the old money, white Europeans namely the mafia in New York is quite astonishing. On the other hand he achieved his great wealth and social status by hawking under-priced narcotics to his own black neighbourhoods in Harlem - would Bumpy approve?. The film fails to deal with his treatment of his own people to line his own pockets. He shows no remorse for the untold number of lives he ruined, by flooding the streets with affordable drugs “If it isn't me, it'll be someone else”, he says.
So it’s not perfect. I’m OK with that, but American Gangster was a story that needed to be told. It takes liberties here and there and Lucas may not lose the same amount of sleep as Michael Corleone does over his exploits, but then again he wanted to be a gangster, Michael didn’t. Smuggling smack into the country using coffins of dead young men who gave their lives serving their country in an unwinnable war is beyond audacious, genius some might say and in doing so he made himself hundreds of millions of dollars – no small achievement. In a genre full of clichés, this aspect brings something fresh to the table. American Gangster is also the first big budget Hollywood Black Gangster movie and the most successful (box office wise) black gangster movie at that – not that box office taking is always a good indication of a good movie.
Sat either side of an interview table in the court house Roberts has Lucas right where he wants him. Lucas can handle animals like Detective Trupo, the greasiest dirtiest cop in a city full of greasy dirty cops, because he has something Trupo wants – money and lots of it. Roberts though is a different animal altogether; Lucas has been brought down by the one straight shooter. He uncharacteristically loses his hyper calm composure when Robert’s refuses to be bought with a million dollars “Who the fuck are you to say no…? You think that impresses me?” Well he might not be impressed, but he’s definitely got his respect.
With the bribe firmly off the table (or least the coffee cup off the table– watch the coffee during this scene – it shows at all times who has the upper hand… seriously), Lucas changes tack “it would mean nothing to me if tomorrow you turned up dead?” but his threat is swatted away like an irritating fly “Get in line. That one stretches around the block”. Like a patient boxer probing and jabbing searching for the blow that will hit home, Lucas offers to give up names and he only fully understands exactly who and what Detective Roberts is when he realises that it’s bringing down the dirty cops, more than organised crime figures that he wants. “You’d do that? Lock up your own kind?” Lucas asks, to which Robert retorts “They’re not my kind any more than the Italians are yours”. It is this distinction that connects the two and elevates the flick above a run of the mill gangster movie.
American Gangster certainly looks the part. Ridley Scott has painstakingly recreated New York and New Jersey of the late 60s early 70s to breath-taking effect. The low rent life of Harlem becomes a character all of its own, which is just as important as any other character we see on screen. Washington and Crowe whose acting talents have already been richly rewarded with plenty of shiny awards are both on top form and the supporting cast of Josh Brolin as dirty cop Detective Trupo, Cuba Gooding Jr as Nicky ‘Mister Untouchable’ Barnes, Armand Assante as head of the Italian Crime Family et al are the cherry on the top. So the big question is: can this thoroughly entertaining movie be ranked alongside other heavyweight gangster movies?
It certainly has its flaws. There’s a scene that follows the Thanksgiving banquet at the Lucas mansion which cuts between several junkies shooting up and one mother ODing in front of her infant child. This fleeting glimpse of the ravaging consequences of Lucas’s Blue Magic on Harlem’s impoverished communities is wholly disproportionate to the focus given to the swanky mansion and elitist lifestyle afforded to Lucas from inflicting the horrors of his own people. This skewed slant and his rags-to-riches story, allows for Frank Lucas to be, despite being drug kingpin no.1 the moral compass in this movie from which we judge all others. Detective Truro is the real bad guy and we also have the Italian Americans who look with distain upon the natural order being upset by Lucas and of course even the public office is incredulous that “No fucking nigger has accomplished what the American Mafia hasn’t in a hundred years”.
Russell Crowe down plays the detective at every opportunity. Roberts generally has a Lieutenant Colombo dishevelment about him - all be it with brighter louder shirts, always slouched and has a very real fear of public speaking. He has a very tenuous grip on his personal life; his wife and kid have left him and he’s even sleeping with the attorney attempting to win him custody of his son “Richie, yes, fuck me like a cop, not a lawyer” – classy chick!
Screen writer, Steven Zaillian and Director Ridley Scott have gone to great lengths to paint the similarities and differences between the leading men. Once we understand these characters and what drives them, there is only one place this movie is taking us and the pay off, when it finally comes, is when Lucas and Roberts go tête à tête.
Most Notable Gangster Moment:
"You wanna shoot me, in front of everybody?" an amused Tango asked as Frank pressed his gun against his forehead. The only answer came from Lucas' pistol when he shot him in the head in broad daylight. He calmly dropped the gun at the scene and sauntered down the street back to resume his conversation with his brothers and cousins.
Body Count: 17 + 3
1. In the opening scene Frank Lucas set a guy on fire and then shot him
2. Bumpy Johnson had a heart attack in an electical store and died
3. Det. Javier Rivera killed a drug dealer
4. Det. Javier Rivera overdosed on Blue Magic
5. Another woman was lying dead in the morgue next to Det. Javier Rivera
6. Frank shot Tango in the head in the middle of the street in broad daylight
7. When Frank was remincing about the lessons he learned from Bumpy, in a flash-back - we saw him shoot an unknown man at a desk
8-9. Two drug addicts overdosed on Blue Magic during the Thanksgiven montage - one died in the bathroom the other on the bed in front of her kid
10-11. When Richie Roberts intercepted the caskets at the airport two bodies of a dead soldiers were seen
12. During the raid on the apartment in the projects Det Freddie Spearman shot the guard (big guy dressed in black leather)
13-14. Two other gangsters were killed by unidentified members of the Police Raid party
15. Richie shot Steve Lucas during the raid
16. Richie shot another gangster wearing a white t-shirt
17. Det. Reno Trupo shot himself when Lucas gave names of corrupt cops to Roberts
+ There was a conversation between Det Roberts and his team about 'Icepick' Paul being dead, but he was never seen
+ Lucas described an incident to Det Roberts in which his cousin is murdered by the police in Greensboro, North Carolina
+ perhaps the most shocking death in the movie was Det Trupo shooting Lucas's German Shepherd.
Frank Lucas shot Tango with a Fegyver és Gépgyár PJK-9HP.
Trupo had a Smith & Wesson Model 19 Snub Nose - he used it to kill the dog … and himself
Detective Roberts and various other police officers used Ithaca 37 shotguns during the raid on Frank's heroin distribution apartment in the projects
Frank carried a CAR-15 semiautomatic rifle during his visit to Vietnam and when meating with the Nationalist heroin producers
Jimmy Zee discovered a piano lid can be used as an offensive weapon when Frank used it to repeatedly bash his head in
Classiest F-bomb dropped:
"fuck me like a cop, not a lawyer"
Det. Reno Trupo's pride and joy was his 1966 Shelby GT 350 H until Frank Lucas blew it up
Det. Roberts followed a 1970 Ford Bronco from New Jersey into New York city
After killing a drug dealer in the projects Det Rivera esacped in a 1983 GMC C-3500 ambulance (anachronism)
Frank and his cousin were cruising in a 1974 Lincoln Continental when they pulled over Det Trupo
Frank and his new bride Eva's wedding car is a 1962 Rolls-Royce Phantom V Limousine
The wedding car was pulled over by Trupo in a 1970 4-door Buick Electra
Det Robert's drove a 1972 Volkswagen Squareback Sedan
Written by Bada Bing