With the creative pedigree behind this film, if it had merely been good, that would have been a tremendous disappointment. The writer, director and two stars have no fewer than five Academy Awards between them and none of them earned cheaply. It should come as either no surprise or a great relief that American Gangster more than delivers on every promise made by the names in the credits.
Based at least partially in fact, American Gangster tells parallel stories of two men on opposite sides of the law. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) starts out in the late sixties as the bodyguard and driver for Ellworth “Bumpy” Johnson, a drug dealer and crime boss who was nonetheless seen as a civic leader in Harlem. When his boss dies, Frank watches as rivals try to carve up Bumpy’s territory but thinks he can do it better and, in his view, more responsibly. Frank reaches out to a cousin serving in Vietnam and makes contact directly with the Chinese ex-general who actually grows the poppies and makes the heroin. He arranges to have the drugs smuggled into the United States using the caskets carrying the remains of American servicemen. By cutting out the middleman, Frank is able to offer purer, higher-quality drugs for less than the competition. It’s capitalism in action, baby!
On the other side is New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), whose personal life is like a train wreck during a tornado. He’s a pariah among his fellow cops for the sin of being too honest. He and his partner found almost $1 million is untraceable cash and, to the horror of their brother officers, did their job and turned it in as evidence. To complicate matters, he’s in the middle of a messy divorce and his womanizing is not helping at the custody hearing. It doesn’t help that his job is interfering with his efforts to finish law school.
Frank efficiently and ruthlessly takes over the heroin trade in New York City. He keeps himself out of harm’s way by keeping his distance and never attracting attention to himself. He surrounds himself with people he can trust, mostly family and treats his own people well so they are never tempted to betray him. He makes deals with the mafia to keep them out of his hair. More troublesome are the corrupt New York cops, of whom Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) is the worst, who want their share of the cut.
Richie’s career is rescued when he’s appointed to a special drug task force assigned to go after the major suppliers. He surrounds himself with a team of cops that have a reputation for being just as annoyingly honest as he is. They have one problem. Their efforts to locate the source of the new, unbelievable pure and cheap heroin hitting the streets are stymied when that source just seems to be invisible. That source, of course, is Frank Lucas.
American Gangster manages to tell a long, complicated story and keep us, the audience, completely in the loop about what is happening. Screenwriter Steven Zallian and director Ridley Scott very adroitly use events of the Vietnam War to show the passage of time and anchor the film in events that at least some in the audience remember.
The movie is also able to traffic in a large quantity of moral ambiguity but never lose sight of the human costs of what its characters do for a living. Frank Lucas is successful, intelligent and sympathetic, but the film takes pains to show the end result of people using his product. On the other hand, in many ways Frank is preferable to the corrupt narcotics detectives who attempt to shake him down. At least he is not betraying the same kind of trust that they are. He is exactly who he says he is and providing a product that people have always been willing to buy. Franks treats his own people, at least the ones he perceives as loyal, far better than Richie Roberts’ people treat him for the crime of being a good cop.
It probably isn’t a surprise that the acting is superb at virtually every level. Not only are Washington and Crowe predictably marvelous in their starring roles, but the supporting cast is equally excellent. Ted Levine, the former Buffalo Bill of Silence of the Lambs fame, makes a sizable impression as Richie’s sympathetic boss, as does the recently ubiquitous Chiwetel Ejiofor as Frank’s oldest brother and most loyal lieutenant. Josh Brolin exudes almost reptilian menace as one of the most effective corrupt cops in recent cinematic history.
Oscar season has barely started and this movie has already set the bar very high indeed for other films hoping to score Best Picture.