|Denzel Washington||Frank Lucas|
|Russell Crowe||Richie Roberts|
|Clarence Williams III||Bumpy Johnson|
|Chiwetel Ejiofor||Huey Lucas|
|John Hawkes||Freddie Spearman|
|Armand Assante||Dominic Cattano|
|Directed by||Ridley Scott|
Ridley Scott looked upon the crime oeuvre of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese and saw that it was good. And he bethought himself, if they can do it, why not I ?
And so he gathered unto him an Oscar–winning screenwriter, Steve Zaillian, and two charismatic Oscar-winning stars, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. And he built him a story based on the improbable career of Frank Lucas, a black mobster who carved out a virtual monopoly in the Harlem drug trade during the Vietnam era, shouldering out the Mafia and flying beneath the radar of the drug authorities while amassing an eye-popping fortune.
Lucas (Washington) did this by operating in the old-fashioned tradition of can-do American capitalism : as he explains to an associate, “you sell a product better than the competition for a price lower than the competition.” You couldn’t ask more of Henry Ford.
The competition in Lucas’s era came mainly from two sources. There was the Mafia, and there was the NYPD’s notorious Special Investigations Unit. The Mafia cut heroin with powder and sold it on the street; the cops busted the dealers, confiscated the heroin, cut it with more powder, and put it back on the market.
The natural enemy of this comfortable symbiosis is an honest man. Our story provides two of them, in a manner of speaking. One is Frank, who imports direct from the source, cuts out the middle man, and provides a frighteningly pure product to the consumer at Crazy Eddie prices.
The other is Det. Richie Roberts (Crowe), an incorruptible cop who has made himself legendary by turning in a cache of nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills discovered in the trunk of a car. This act of integrity does not endear him to his fellow officers of the law, who follow him with looks of suspicion and loathing as he walks through the station house. As his worried partner tells him, “Cops kill cops they can’t trust.”
Richie is tapped by higher-ups who do value honesty in a cop to head a task force to clean up the drug epidemic. Concurrently, Frank is on the rise. As the movie begins, he is the loyal driver and muscle for Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), the crime lord of Harlem. The first image we see, before the credits have even gotten up to speed, is Frank dousing a battered punk with gasoline, setting him on fire, and then impassively pumping a few slugs into him as Bumpy watches approvingly.
Not, you will say, a nice guy. But gangster movies have always bee suckers for the appeal of bad boys. Frank is sophisticated, elegant, and has charm to spare. Where he polished these social graces, coming from dirt-poor North Carolina and rising through the mean streets of Harlem, is anybody’s guess, but Bumpy was a classy role model. Moments before his untimely death, Bumpy is decrying the demise of the mom-and-pop business under the onslaught of the discount store. “What right do they have, cutting out the middle man?” he sighs, before crumpling to the floor. This sticks in Frank’s mind, and later when he sees a television news report on the prevalence of cheap heroin in Southeast Asia, tumblers click together in his head for the business model that will take him to the top.
Meanwhile, Richie is stumbling along through a crumbling marriage built on neglect and cheating, and trying to build an investigation. He too has charm and intelligence, but he lacks the polish and love of the finer things we see in Frank. The two men, black and white, crooked and honest, are offered as two sides of the same cookie.
Of the many weaknesses in Scott’s pedestrian telling, perhaps the most important is his devotion to the parallel story lines, which keeps the two leads apart until the end. Washington and Crowe are superb actors who bring enormous chemistry to the proceedings, but it is well past the two hour mark when the chemical reaction they generate together is allowed to happen. When Richie finally busts Frank, there is one of those so-we-meet-at-last looks of Olympian respect and recognition that passes between them, but it is undercut by the fact that they really haven’t known about each other for much of the movie.
There are some fine performances in smaller roles. The great Ruby Dee is invited along as Frank’s mother primarily for one scene, which she plays to the hilt, despite being given bupkes to work with. “I never asked you what you did to get all this,” she says to her son, “because I didn’t want you to lie to me.” As moral high ground, it comes up short. Josh Brolin is striking as a bad cop, and Cuba Gooding Jr. has a few good but irrelevant moments as a rival Harlem gangster. But Lymari Nadal, as Frank’s beauty queen wife, provides nothing to spark either his interest or ours.
“Based on a True Story” is cheap coin in Hollywood, and always has been. American Gangster is based on a fascinating New Yorker profile by Mark Jacobson on the real Frank Lucas, called The Return of Superfly. How much truth we get in the movie version is hard to say (Richie doesn’t appear in the New Yorker piece.) As far as that goes, nobody much cares if it’s gospel, as long as it’s riveting. Here, alas, it is not. As to the outcome, drugs have not vanished from the streets of American cities, but currently in Hollywood, rival forces are rushing to be the first to film the “true story” of the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be
© Pictures 2007 Universal Studios