American Gangster **** (out of ****)

Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Roger Guenvere Smith, RZA, Ruby Dee, Carlo Gugino, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Armand Assante, Idris Elba
Rating: R (language, violence, nudity, sexual content, drug use)
Running Time: 157 min
Release Date: 11/2/07

American Gangster is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) who brought sound business practices to the Harlem heroin trade from the late 1960s until his arrest in 1975. He inherited the role of top gangster from his boss and mentor Bumpy Johnson. At the time Lucas took charge of Bumpy’s criminal empire the Italian mafia and strangle local narcotics police had a strangle hold on the supply of heroin. The police, at least according to the movie, were so corrupt that even the drugs that were seized soon were resold. The drugs were cut several times and were of poor quality by the time they were sold on the street. Lucas realized that if he could supply a high quality product for a lower price than the competition he could dominate he drug trade.

He had a relative serving in the military in Southeast Asia. It was through this contact that he was able to arrange a meeting with the regions big kingpin a Thai general. Lucas was able to negotiate a deal for pure heroin which was then shipped back in the coffins of dead service men. So as long as the war raged Lucas would have the highest quality product on the Harlem market. Furthermore, he sold his product called “Blue Magic” which had twice the potency of his rival’s products for half the price. Naturally he made millions. Lucas brought in his family to be his loyal subordinates. Yet, even though he was a ruthless killer when he needed to be, he maintained the air of a businessman. He even takes his mother to church every Sunday.

Against this “bad guy” is pitted Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who seems to be the only honest narcotics cop in the whole NYPD. Roberts gets a bad reputation with his fellow officers because he found nearly a million dollars in unmarked drug money in the trunk of car and turned it in. This man had ethics. Sure, he cheated on his wife, but when it came police work he was a regular Joe Friday. How much of this is true, I don’t know. Roberts, ostracized by his fellow detectives, gets recruited to set up a special federal drug taskforce. He eventually targets Lucas in the course of his investigations.

Lucas is a paradoxical character as he has very strict values and a proper demeanor until someone screws up. He will then kill without hesitation. We see him extolling the virtues of family and honesty. Then flash to junkie overdosed on his product with a needle still hanging from his arms. Lucas is able to come to an accommodation with the mafia but his relationship with crooked cops is more strained. He followed in Bumpy Johnson’s tradition of handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving. So he sends a living turkey to the particular cop who has harassed him and then bombs his car as the delivery man walks away. The end of Vietnam brought the Lucas operation to a close. He was arrested in 1975 and made a plea deal which movie claims led to the arrest of seventy-five percent of the NYPD narcotics squad.

Denzel Washington is perfect for this role. Although the movie is a little long at 157 minutes, time passes quickly. American Gangster brings to our attention an amazing chapter in the history of organized crime. I’m left wonder just how much of this story is true.

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