I haven’t been big on Ridley Scott post-ALIEN, but when I saw he was doing the real-life gangster epic starring Denzel Washington – the one I already wanted to see when it was Antoine Fuqua that was supposed to direct it – man, I was excited. And the trailer looked great. And then it came out and without exception everybody I knew who saw it said “yeah, it was… pretty good.” Suddenly there was less urgency to see it, and I watched other movies, wrote some stuff, maybe took some naps, ate some food, and then it was gone.
Well, maybe it was for the best. Now I watched it with lower expectations, in its 20-minutes-longer UNRATED EXTENDED CUT (4 minutes shy of 3 hours) and I have to say I really enjoyed it. I see your “yeah, it was… pretty good” and raise you a “it was… pretty fuckin good.” I am proud to review it alongside such other great American films as AMERICAN PIMP, AMERICAN PSYCHO and AMERICAN NINJA.
In the opening, Harlem’s top gangster and folk hero Bumpy Johnson dies. Frank Lucas (Denzel) has been Bumpy’s driver for years, and takes over his operations, but nobody expects much from him. So nobody really knows what’s going on when he has this brilliant idea: hearing about all the soldiers strung out on heroin in Vietnam, he decides to go there to get dope straight from the source. He uses his connections within the army to use military planes to smuggle it in completely pure. Back home he has an operation to cut it up but makes sure his is twice as strong as the competition, for half the price. And he stamps a name on it: Blue Magic. “That’s a brand name, like Pepsi.”
Meanwhile, there’s this other story about a cop, Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe. He’s a tough guy, but a small timer, his life a mess. He’s in the middle of a divorce, he’s trying to get a law degree but having a hard time of it, he gets bit by Kevin Corrigan (a character actor who pops up in everything from GOODFELLAS to THE DEPARTED to SUPERBAD). Him and his partner are trying to bust a bookie, they open his trunk to try to get his slips, and they find a million unmarked dollars in grocery bags. So they turn it in.
That becomes a defining moment for Richie. There’s alot of dirty cops in that department, and they don’t think a guy clean enough to turn in a million dollars is on their side. So he gets a reputation as this impossibly straight arrow and everybody hates him for it, but as his ex-wife points out he’s only an honest cop, not an honest person. He cheated on her, he hangs out with gangsters he knew in high school. Frank Lucas gets married and as far as we can see is faithful, while Richie bangs a long line of stewardesses and lawyers we know little about.
Despite the title, the advertising, and the audience’s inclination toward anti-heroes, I think this is more a movie about Richie than Frank Lucas. I was surprised to find myself more interested in the cop story than the gangster one. Alot of the reviews I read that said this was good but disappointingly not great were comparing it to gangster movies like THE GODFATHER and GOODFELLAS. And no, it’s not in that league. But it’s not really in the same category either, because those movies are about gangsters trying to run their empires and not get busted. AMERICAN GANGSTER is partly about that, but at least half about the cop that’s going to bust him, and how he does it. If anything I guess the bar it can’t clear would be THE DEPARTED.
But the genius of the story is that Richie and Frank don’t even know about each other for most of the movie. It’s 90 minutes in when Richie sees Frank sitting in the front row at a Mohammed Ali fight and wonders “who is that guy?” Frank has a wise rule about not dressing flashy because “the loudest person in the room is the weakest person in the room.” But (and this is what happened in real life too, apparently) he makes the mistake of wearing a ridiculous chinchilla coat and hat to the fight, and calls attention to himself. He realizes his mistake and burns the coat in the fireplace, but even then it’s just because it brought him to the attention of a dirty cop who wants a piece of his action (a William Forsythe-esque Josh Brolin, continuing his 2008 revival I call “BROLIN THUNDER”). But Frank doesn’t know that he has also revealed himself to Richie. It’s not until 2 hours into the movie that he even has an inkling that anybody is following him around. And it’s not until the end that he actually sees Richie.
We watch the stories of Richie and Frank Lucas side-by-side – as Frank calls in his relatives from North Carolina to build his drug empire, Richie puts together an anti-drug strike force for the feds. As Frank buys a mansion, Richie leases an old building to set up his office in. There’s a great Thanksgiving Day montage that contrasts Frank’s turkey dinner with his family to Richie making himself a tunafish and potato chip sandwich, then to Brolin in his more-expensive-than-a-cop’s-salary home, and then to various miserable heroin addicts around the city. I love the construction of this story – they’re all the same story, but they’re on separate tracks that only meet on occasion. It’s like Richie and Frank are these two trains speeding toward a crossover where you know they’re gonna collide. But you don’t mind waiting 3 hours to get there.
Denzel of course does a great job. He plays him kind of noble, and obviously charismatic. You can imagine you would want him to say “my man!” to you like he does whenever he is impressed by somebody. But mostly because you wouldn’t want him to kill you. I disagree with anybody who says they glorify him too much. This is a scary guy. He doesn’t even really start out nicer and go downhill, he’s pretty psychotic. When he brings his brothers to town to work for him he doesn’t even tell them what they’re gonna do at first. Then right after revealing that he’s a dope kingpin he sits them down at a diner, excuses himself, goes out and shoots one of his rivals in the head, right on the sidewalk and at a window where his family can watch. They look like they’re gonna shit their pants. He comes back in and wipes his hands with a napkin before eating. (He should probaly use a sink but I’m glad he at least did something.)
Even before that though, the movie treats him as a bad guy. When he’s taking care of Bumpy’s funeral he might by sympathetic, but the music already sounds scary. And even if that didn’t give us the hint we already saw the first shot of the movie: a guy tied up, screaming for mercy, as Frank splashes gasoline on him. It spills off the guy, mingling with blood from his wounds. Frank lights him on fire. Then, without wincing, without even facing him, he unloads his gun into him. Kind of overkill, in my opinion. But at least he didn’t let him burn to death. Anyway, that’s your introduction to Frank Lucas. Not a nice guy.
The whole cast is great, and it’s one of those movies where you keep finding yourself saying, “I didn’t know he was gonna be in this!” Clarence Williams III plays Bumpy Johnson (uncredited for some reason). Frank’s brothers include Chiwetel Ejiofor and the rapper Common, and I guess his nephew is the rapper T.I. Joe Morton is one of his confidants. Armand Assante and Jon Polito are some of his associates. Cuba Gooding Jr. is one of his rivals. Roger Guenveur Smith (DO THE RIGHT THING, MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE) is his cousin who hooks him up in Vietnam. Richie’s ex-wife is Carla Gugino. He works with Ted Levine. His strike force includes the clerk from the beginning of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and the RZA (who sports an afro and does a good job in a role that’s a little bigger than I expected). Norman Reedus (Scud in BLADE II) is in one scene. Even Fab 5 Freddy has a cameo. And of course Ruby Dee is in there, she got an Oscar nomination. Man, everybody is in this movie. Why wasn’t I in this movie? Were you in this movie? Chances are you were.
One of the criticisms I’ve heard is that the movie is not very true to life. Not only is alot of it Hollywooded up, but Lucas might’ve lied about some of this shit. Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character) claims Lucas gives himself too much credit, but I don’t know if he can be believed. Lucas himself said the movie was only about 20% true, but thought Denzel had him down perfectly. I’m not sure even that part is believable because in the extras on the DVD he comes off as way more of a hick than Denzel plays him. I’ve seen some people claiming the heroin never really was hidden in coffins, or that Lucas at some point said he only really did it once (which, to be fair, is how many times he’s shown doing it in the movie). And Richie Roberts I guess was mad that they portrayed him as being in a custody battle. This part was probaly not accurate considering that in real life Roberts doesn’t have any kids.
The movie is supposed to be based on the article “The Return of Superfly” from New York Magazine. Interestingly, the article does not mention Richie once. It does mention a cop nicknamed “Babyface” who seems to be the inspiration for Brolin’s character. There’s a funny scene at the end of the movie where Frank laughs at the clothes that gangsters wear in the ’90s, and this comes from something that happens as the author of the article is interviewing Frank. And Frank in the movie has some lines that come from boasts he made in the article. So there’s definitely some truth in there, it’s just mixed around.
But I don’t know, after reading about it the reality or lack thereof doesn’t bother me too much. Yes it’s movie-fied, but alot of what makes the story interesting actually is true. And to me the most interesting truth is that, just like the movie says at the end, Richie and Frank became friends. If you watch the extras on the DVD you can see this with your own eyes – the two of them are on set together as consultants, smiling at each other’s stories, patting each other on the shoulders. Frank gushes about what a good job Richie did prosecuting him. Richie reveals that he’s godfather to Frank’s son, and brags that the kid gets straight A’s.
To me that’s what the movie is about really is these two dudes, opposites, adversaries, but in many ways alike. Living these parallel lives, in opposition to each other, but not even knowing that each other exist. And then eventually when their lives do intersect they have their battle and when it’s all over they look back and think, eh, what’s the point holding a grudge? Even if he did light that guy on fire at the beginning.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.