An American Godfather
What appealed most to fans of the wildly popular HBO series, The Sopranos, is the same pulse that fuels Ridley Scott's new action/drama American Gangster. We love seeing the creep of structure and civility into the fringe aspects of society -- the criminal underworld. That there can be respect, and organization within criminal activity is a truly fascinating phenomenon, and like honor among thieves, rules of war, and the prison-doled justice of jailed child molesters, we love seeing the oxymoron play out before us. It's both frightening and seductive.
Culled from a New York Magazine article by journalist Mark Jacobson, American Gangster plays out with the parallel stories of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts who, while on opposing sides of the law, draw equal appeal from the audience. Should we care about a gentlemanly gangster who is as likely to blow an enemy's head off as he is to sip fine cognac and tip his hat to the presence of a woman? Should we feel disdain for a slovenly police officer who cheats on his wife, yet refuses to fall into the corrupt ways of his fellow officers? This chilling irony is at the heart of the story that plays out as both a police procedural and a gangland drama.
Denzel Washington portrays Frank Lucas, the real-life Harlem godfather who made a fortune in the late '60s and early '70s selling heroin on the streets of New York City. Applying the most successful blueprints of entrepreneurial accomplishment to his crime domain, he offers a heroin -- branded in glassine packets and stamped "blue magic" -- with twice the potency at half the cost of what was currently available on the Vietnam-era streets of the Big Apple. I guess he was the Sam Walton of Smack.
Washington sheds his normal good-guy persona for a rare turn as villain. We're disgusted at seeing small children wallow in the filth of their heroin-addicted parents, yet we can't help but be charmed by his aristocratic courtesy, amiable nature, and impeccable appearance. Washington is so convincing, we're forced into an uncomfortable struggle with our own moral beliefs. Is a crime-riddled world acceptable if it's kept neat and orderly by a man of wealth and integrity?
Lucas, who cut his hooligan teeth as the driver and protégé to Harlem crime lord Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (the inspiration for the black godfather of the '70s Shaft films), seized the reigns of the crime empire upon Bumpy's death and found a way to undercut the middlemen by dealing directly with Southeast Asian drug manufacturers. He hurdles the obstacle of importing the drugs into the U.S. by making a deal with U.S Army personnel who secretly pack the raw opiate into the coffins of dead soldiers traveling back from Vietnam -- the so-called Cadaver Connection. The shelf-life of Lucas' reign is constantly illustrated by incidental black and white television news snippets that cover the impending withdrawal from Vietnam of American troops. As the war's end nears, Lucas' stranglehold on the underworld becomes tenuous and subsequently, his actions become more and more brazen. So, it's not surprising that his identity is betrayed by a pimped-out chinchilla coat.
A pudgy Russell Crowe is Richie Roberts, the persistent NYC detective who, through honest police work and dogged determination, eventually brings down the drug kingpin that was purported to have amassed a fortune calculated in the tens of millions. Crowe's Roberts is a mirror image to that of Washington's Lucas. A messy divorce proceeding and custody battle by his wife, Laurie (Carla Gugino), constantly reminds us that Roberts is a less than an admirable husband and father. While not dapper and refined -- actually quite slovenly -- he's a clean cop in a cesspool of officers on the take. Lucas' rise and fall is perfectly balanced by Roberts' fall and rise.
Like a pair of steaming locomotives heading to a station with room for only one, the congruous threads of Lucas and Roberts finally come to an explosive collision. As head of a special Federal task force -- the precursor to the DEA- Roberts eventually pieces enough together to not only mount a case against Lucas and his Country Boys gang, but he also uncovers a hazy but disturbing revelation that as many as 52 out of 70 Special Narcotics Investigations officers are guilty of corruption.
Brilliant acting by Crowe and Washington, coupled with Scott's near flawless direction make American Gangster one of the best organized crime dramas to come along in quite some time. It doesn't quite have the heft and prestige of The Godfather, but then again, time may tell? Don't expect gory bloodbaths and gratuitous violence a la Menace II Society or Boyz N' the Hood. It's not that kind of film. Think French Connection or Serpico.
The film's final act seems a bit rushed and slightly sloppy as if we're up against the clock, but despite a runtime of over 2-1/2 hours, it's difficult to imagine where it could have been cut. Most films of similar length often feel bloated and portentous, but Scott's pacing is always brisk. A closing scene played under a stirring rendition of "Amazing Grace" flirts with banality, but even Scott's missteps work and the feeling are quickly replaced by goosebumps as Crowe and Washington finally begin to ply their craft on screen together.
The large cast that includes nearly 100 speaking roles, is rounded out with memorable performances by such luminaries as Chiwetel Ejiofor; Josh Brolin, Carla Gugino and relative newcomer RZA. A brilliant turn by Ruby Dee as Mama Lucas and a brief but flashy go by Cuba Gooding, Jr. remind us what a great director Scott is. Neither an unwieldy cast, nor a shooting schedule that included over 152 locations prevents him from bringing the texture of the times to life in one of the best films of the year.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for violence, pervasive drug content, language, nudity, and sexuality)
Review also posted on www.franksreelreviews.com.