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American Gangster

Must-See Filmmaking

In the early 70s, Frank Lucas rose to prominence as a major player in the Harlem drug trade. Eventually arrested and sentenced to 70 years in prison, Lucas cooperated with state and federal prosecutors in exchange for a reduced sentence (he served 15 years). After coming across a profile of Lucas written by Marc Jacobson seven years ago in New York magazine, screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York, Clear and Present Danger, Schindler's List) optioned Jacobson’s article and developed a screenplay. Two false starts later, Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Blade Runner) stepped in to direct Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. The end result is an often compelling, visually impressive, if unnecessarily long, crime drama.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a driver, collector, and enforcer, works for Harlem gangster, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III). After Johnson’s unexpected death leaves a power vacuum, Lucas decides to start his own organization. Lucas develops a brilliant plan to take over the dope trade in Harlem, going straight to the source in Southeast Asia and cutting out stateside middlemen. Lucas arranges to have pure heroin smuggled into the United States.

He sells his brand of heroin, Blue Magic, at half the price of the competition. He brings his brothers from South Carolina to work for him, becomes a wealthy, feared man, marries a beauty queen, Eva (Lymari Nadal), and sets up his mother, (Ruby Dee), in a mansion. With the exception of a corrupt cop, Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), who keeps coming around for handouts and threatening retribution for non-compliance, Lucas lives lavishly.

Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), seemingly the last honest cop in New Jersey. As the drug trade in Harlem, New York, and New Jersey expands exponentially, the feds decide to create a narcotics task force. Roberts’ captain, Lou Toback (Ted Levine), taps Roberts to head up the task force, and Roberts has to find other detectives who won’t be easily corrupted.

As Roberts begins and continues his investigation, he slowly realizes that a new player, probably not Italian, has taken over Harlem. Finding his quarry’s identity proves difficult, especially as his superiors in New Jersey and the federal prosecutor’s office refuse to believe that an African American can run such a sophisticated operation.

Structurally, American Gangster breaks down into two parallel stories, each meant to reflect on the other. In one, the template is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, tracking Lucas’ rise to power and his efforts to maintain power in the face of opposition from other gangsters, corrupt cops, and federal prosecution. In the other, William Friedkin’s The French Connection serves as the model, as an obsessive cop methodically pieces together a case against Lucas and his organization over several years. The two stories don’t overlap as much as run parallel, converging only in the last half hour. It’s almost immediately after the storylines converge that American Gangster loses the energy and momentum that characterized the first two hours (the film runs close to two and a half hours) and gives way to a muddled, overlong epilogue.

The overextended epilogue, however, is only a minor problem with a film that delivers on just about everything else it promises, e.g. a solidly crafted screenplay by Steve Zaillian, riveting performances by Washington and Crowe, dynamic direction by Ridley Scott, whose attention for period detail is as meticulous as ever, as is his eye for visual composition, fluid camera movements, and taut editing that only goes slack in the last half hour. American Gangster may not belong to the pantheon of gangster/crime dramas, but it comes close.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars