American Gangster, a crime drama from director Ridley Scott, depicts the true story of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the police detective Richard “Richie” Roberts (Russell Crowe) who sought to put Lucas behind bars and shut down the heroin smuggling empire that reigned throughout New York in the 1970’s. Screenwriter Steve Zaillian’s tight American Gangster script, adapted from the New Yorker piece ‘The Return of Superfly’ by Mark Jacobson ensures audiences have no doubt Frank is a legitimate criminal, in his first scene lights a man on fire and fires several bullets into his chest.
After his mentor Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) dies, Frank takes flight to Thailand to make a deal with local heroin farmers to smuggle the drug nicknamed “Blue Magic” onto the streets of New York, stabilising the gangster hierarchy, making Frank the most powerful criminal in the city. In the world of crime Frank is ahead of the pack learning from his late mentor to take pride in the ownership of business, treat his crime family with respect and operate without detection.
American Gangster explores the power of hiding in plain sight; Frank undetectable in his daily routine of attending business meetings with accountants and lawyers. Frank never stands out from the crowd, preferring evenings at home with his wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) and elderly mother Mahalee (Ruby Dee). No evidence of Frank involved in any criminal activity makes it impossible for police to warrant a house raid and that’s the way he wants it to stay.
Frank, like all good businessmen is a preservationist, educating his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) the strength a gangster comes from being the quietest person in the room. Less is said for rival gangster Tango (Idris Elba) who has no career plan, embracing the hedonistic lifestyle and wearing getups that Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) would have worn in crime blaxploitation movie Super Fly (1972).
Just as Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110th Street’ plays in a montage sequence of heroin smuggled into the city, Frank Lucas knows “You’ve got to be strong, if you want to survive”, killing Tango in broad daylight after the cocksure gangster demands money he wasn’t owed. Frank isn’t an opportunist gangster; he’s a criminal dedicated to his life’s work and won’t let anyone stand in his way of his business empire. Frank learned to fight back at twelve years old witnessing the murder of his cousin at the hands of the Klu Klux Klan, resentful of dedicated detectives like Richie Roberts who believe in justice and the law.
Richie believes a cop must always do the right thing every time; turning in $1,000,000 found in the trunk of a mobster’s car even when he knows it’ll be stolen by corrupt cops and recirculated onto the streets. Like Frank, Richie takes pride in his work and strongly believes the streets can be made a better place. Despite their differences, Frank and Richie share an enemy in corrupt detective Nick Trupo (Josh Brolin) who embraces the disorder of crime on the streets. Trupo, finding heroin in the trunk of Frank’s car demands $10,000 a month to buy his silence but soon learns Frank doesn’t play by any rules with an assassination attempt made on Trupo when a bomb detonates underneath his car.
American Gangster has an astute understanding of the grand scale of the crime world. From the far reaches of the Golden Triangle in Vietnam to naked women who measure and cut the heroin in drug dens and the White House-esque mansion Frank’s where mother willingly turns a blind eye to her son’s career path. Every person has a role to play to ensure Frank’s drug empire is unrivalled. Frank and Richie’s narratives only meet at the end of American Gangster after a shootout between police and gangsters at the drug den (reminiscent of the climax to The French Connection (1971)) gives Richie enough evidence to arrest Frank and shut the city drug shops down.
American Gangster boils down what it means to be an American and live in a country where you are told you can be anything you want to be. One guy chose to be a criminal, the other chose to be a cop. But regardless of their differences both Frank and Richie share one similar interest: the satisfaction of doing a good job with their work.
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