For a film that was a critical and commercial success, I’m surprised that American Gangster (2007) isn’t talked about more or revered by film buffs as much as it should. The general consensus seems to be that it’s a good film but not a great one. Ridley’s Scott’s film is an epic depiction of the rise of Frank Lucas, from right-hand man of Harlem gangster “Bumpy” Johnson to major league smuggler of heroin from Vietnam to the United States during the war via the bodies of dead soldiers on American service planes. He was eventually detained by a task force led by Newark police detective Richie Roberts.
Based very loosely on a New York magazine article about Lucas, the production got off to a rocky start when Ridley Scott and Brian De Palma briefly flirted with directing Steve Zaillian’s screenplay before the studio hired Antoine Fuqua with Denzel Washington and Benicio del Toro to star as Lucas and Roberts respectively. Four weeks before the beginning of principal photography, Fuqua was fired over budgetary concerns and creative differences. The production was shut down for a few months and was then revived with Scott directing and Russell Crowe replacing Del Toro. American Gangster was released to much acclaim but, oddly enough, has become something of an overlooked film among Scott’s body of work.
We meet Frank Lucas (Washington) in 1968 as Bumpy’s (Clarence Williams III) ruthless enforcer. He teaches Frank about “the pride of ownership,” and “personal service” – two things that are missing from the stores in the neighborhood. He points out that the middle-men have been pushed out and store owners buy straight from the manufacturer. “There’s no one in charge,” Bumpy says before dying. Frank remembers these words and applies them with merciless efficiency when he takes over Bumpy’s turf and then others.
Meanwhile, Richie (Crowe) is going to school to become a lawyer and serving subpoenas with his partner Javier Rivera (John Ortiz) during a memorable scene where they deliver one to a very resistant man played by character actor extraordinaire Kevin Corrigan. Richie is one of those cops dedicated to the job, often to the detriment of his personal life, and much to the chagrin of his wife (Carla Gugino) and son. He goes on gut instinct and is honest to the point of making himself a pariah within the department. He refuses to exploit the system unlike other corrupt cops such as Nick Trupo (Josh Brolin) who takes dope he seizes from busts and then sells it back to other criminals.
Applying Bumpy’s advice of going straight to the source, Frank travels to Vietnam, and, with his U.S. military contact (Roger Guenveur Smith), a lot of money, and a ton of confidence, he meets with a local warlord (Ric Young) and deals with him directly. This is the start of a very profitable drug empire back in Harlem, but when his partner overdoses on some of Frank’s heroin, Richie makes it his mission in life to find out who is supplying it and taking them down. To do so, his boss (Ted Levine) gives him the freedom to assemble his own taskforce of cops that are honest and trustworthy.
Denzel Washington is excellent as a charismatic drug kingpin that applies his mentor’s dying advice with staggeringly profitable results. He’s cool, collected and always in control as evident in the memorable scene where he openly challenges a rival gangster (Idris Elba) with a smile but an intensity that is conveyed with a look that is all icy determination. This teaser achieves its pay off later on when he shoots said gangster in the head in broad daylight. It not only shows the neighborhood that he means business but also his family members that are now part of his burgeoning empire. As the film progresses, Washington expertly shows how the pressure of running a big drug organization gets to Frank, especially when those close to him make costly mistakes, or when the mafia, represented by Armand Assante’s smooth-talking mobster, voices their displeasure with him stealing away some of their action.
Russell Crowe certainly matches Washington for intensity and adds an aspect of sadness when it comes to Richie’s personal life, which is a shambles – what’s left of it anyways. Much like the cop protagonists in Michael Mann’s films, his job is what defines him. Crowe is also very good at portraying an honest cop without making him seem naïve or stupid. Early on, we get a good idea of just how honest Richie is when he refuses to lie for his partner in an engrossing scene that takes place in the back of ambulance where John Ortiz attacks the scene with the wild-eyed desperation befitting his junkie character that has been ostracized by his fellow cops because of his partner’s honest-to-a-fault approach. Ortiz is a sweaty mess and plays well off of Crowe’s visibly upset cop. We’re not quite sure why Richie refuses to go the route of cops like Trupo but there is no question about his determination to fight crime even if it alienates him from his fellow officers.
We don’t see Crowe and Washington share a scene together until the end when Frank is in custody and Richie convinces him to rat out Italian mobsters and corrupt cops. Both men play it low-key but the intensity is still there, bubbling just under the surface and it is great to see two powerful actors go at it in the same room.
For such a long film (theatrical cut: 158 minutes / extended cut: 176 minutes), Scott keeps things moving with a fascinating story populated by engrossing performances by a star-studded cast chock full of solid character actors the likes we haven’t seen since Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995). As a result, you have likes of Idris Elba, Norman Reedus and Cuba Gooding Jr. in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it parts. There are also contemporary rappers Common, RZA and T.I. popping up in minor but significant roles with Common demonstrating decent acting chops as he holds his own against a veteran actor like Denzel Washington. The late-great Ruby Dee plays Frank’s elderly mother while utility character actors like John Hawkes show up as one of Richie’s trusted crew, Roger Guenveur Smith as Frank’s army connection in Vietnam, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Frank’s long-time personal driver. They all turn in solid, unassuming performances, often in the background of scenes but nonetheless providing top-notch support to Crowe and Washington.
The attention to period detail and music is incredible – exactly what you’d expect from a meticulous filmmaker like Ridley Scott – from a flawless recreation of late ‘60s era Harlem to the sweaty, crowded streets of Vietnam and its lush jungles. Scott immerses us in this specific time and place, transporting us there with the atmospheric cinematography of Harris Savides (Zodiac) and a soundtrack populated by the likes of blues and soul musicians such as Bobby Womack, Sam and Dave, and John Lee Hooker, among others. Scott is at his finest during the brilliantly orchestrated climax of the systematic dissolving of Frank’s empire that begins with a chaotic, intense shoot-out at one his drug dens, culminating in Richie waiting for him outside of the church he attends with his mother (Ruby Dee) every Sunday.
Scott wisely doesn’t try to ape the intensity of The French Connection’s (1971) hand-held camerawork or the talky density of Prince of the City (1981) but opts for his own straightforward approach to the material, letting Frank’s story and Richie’s determination to stop him to propel the narrative. With the help of Zaillian’s script, Scott deftly juggles the parallel trajectories of Frank and Richie, showing how their personal and professional lives bleed together, impacting one another. The refusal to go for an overtly flashy style may be why American Gangster isn’t remembers as fondly as the aforementioned The French Connection or Scarface (1983) but it deserves a place among those classics for the performances alone.
American Gangster may not say anything new about crime in America, adhering to the tried and true rise and fall formula of most gangster stories. It did, however, reinforce Scott’s deftness at tackling different kinds of genres. He doesn’t redefine the gangster genre and make it his own like Stanley Kubrick did – that’s not his endgame – he is more interested in telling an entertaining and engaging story very well. It may not have flashy style or instantly quotable dialogue, but that doesn’t make it a lesser film – just a different one. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment it isn’t meant to be one. American Gangster is mythic filmmaking at its finest.