It's 1968 in South East Asia and some of the US troops are shooting more heroin than Vietcong. It’s the good stuff, pure and uncut. Meanwhile on the streets of New York, junkies are injecting dope so diluted it’s like being in detox.
These two contrasting elements from a true-life story provide a rags-to-riches opportunity for Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) — and give the movie audience a product so sweet it should be as illegal as the white-powered product that lies at its core.
With the inner-city supplies a large bulk of the soldiers for the Vietnam conflict, Harlem drug lord Lucas has connections at the mother source, for what will prove to be the purest “H” ever imported in bulk to the U.S.
Director Ridley Scott’s most mature effort to date, “American Gangster”, paints a picture of unfettered, ruthless, dog-eat-dog capitalism. It's a case study of supply and demand so clear that a kindergartener (who should not see this movie under any circumstances) could understand it.
Lucas, the Godfather of Harlem, speaks in the terms and eloquence of a business professor. He addresses the consistency of product and the function of a name brand.
Lucas carries the dignity that only Washington can bring to those who rise from abject poverty — characters like Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, men who will not suffer humiliation even at the price of death. In a conservative dark suit, white shirt and Windsor knotted tie, the ghetto gangster epitomizes the American CEO. He rubs elbows with the celebrated and powerful.
Alternately ruthless and compassionate but never capricious,he enjoys community support. But police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) sees Lucas’ contribution in a different light. He sees marketed paths to addiction and death — the inevitable outcome for the users of the high quality opiates imported in the coffins of dead soldiers.
But the impeccably honest cop has few supporters among his colleagues in the NYPD narcotics squad, whose jaw-dropping and brazen corruption resembles the kind of third-world law enforcement where without bribes the police go unpaid.
The squad’s unyielding commitment to shaking down dealers and stealing seized drugs reveals itself through their reaction to Richie turning in a bag with almost a million dollars in drug money. Indeed, Richie’s partner is less unsettled by the cash slipping through his hands than by the threat from his fellow officers, who he correctly anticipates will see him and his partner as a threat to the cash cow.
Too honest to be trusted, Richie fortunately secures a reassignment to a federal task force. He is now free to actually pursue wrongdoers.
This is a winner-take-all story, in which Frank may have taken just a bit too much while nemesis Richie, at least materially, takes nothing at all.
Lucas, despite his depraved activities, comes off as sympathetic. Espousing the benefits of family, he takes care of his relatives, especially his mother. Braving both the jungles of Southeast Asia and the white Mafia of New York, his character is designed to endear, despite recent articles in which Washington reminds us that Lucas was a bad person.
We’ve seen Richie Roberts before in various forms: the incorruptible public servant, lacking in malice, driven by an unshakable faith in justice and the system. Yet Crowe reinvents the character once again, bringing fresh energy.
Unfortunately Lucas' relatives, his lieutenants, remain basically undeveloped characters — an unavoidableconsequence, given the length of the movie. Lost are the family dynamics so profitably explored in “The Godfather”.
One of Lucas’ advantages in avoiding detection was that the feds never suspected a black person in that era could pull off the import and distribution of such a high-grade product. The New York Mafia dons were at his mercy. The NYC narcotics squad wanted to keep him in business—he was making them big money. It’s a fascinating tale even now.
The story is so alive, possessing such a strong pulse, you want to resuscitate it at the finish. It meets the tough criteria of the old show biz days, “Always leave ‘em wanting more”.