BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
Based on the real lives of drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and narcotics detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), American Gangster details the colorful lives of two highly successful men—each with his own blend of strict values—that eventually merge in confrontation, where only one can win. Two opposing forces who to this day maintain the most unlikely friendship.
In the early 1970s, Lucas is king of Harlem, street name Superfly. Lucas imports pure heroin direct from the poppy growers of Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle,” straight to New York’s 116th Street. He smuggles his product in fake coffins, duplicates of those carrying American soldiers killed in Vietnam. Having purchased his kilos wholesale—$4,000 instead of $35,000 street price, he sells his “Blue Magic” out of an old Chevy and grosses one million dollars per day. Not that there isn’t serious overhead. It takes plenty of folks on the payroll to keep the powder flowing into the States and onto the streets, which includes his relatives. And countless members of the NYPD. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Lucas is a North Carolina man of principles. His branded product is the purest in town, his prices the lowest. He takes his mother to church on Sundays. He pays his employees well. But when you’re working for Lucas, you only get one chance to do it right.
Meanwhile, Richie Roberts is a steadfast detective tracking the source of New York City’s drug supply while putting himself through law school. He is determined to clean up the streets, in spite of being the rare Serpico breed of honest cop on the NYPD. But his ethics are firm. When he and his partner find a suitcase of drug money totaling a million dollars, instead of dividing the take with the department, he turns it in. Now he has no friends on the force. Or for that matter, at home. His wife hates him because he chooses his career over his family.
American Gangster has the makings of a superb mini-series that could go on for hours without ever running out of juice. But for the big screen version of 157 minutes, this was a difficult movie to stage. Director Ridley Scott makes a noble effort in telling both men’s stories, based in part on Mark Jacobson’s in-depth profile in New York magazine, “The Return of Superfly.” And relying on the talented Steven Zaillian, who brought us big screenplays like Gangs of New York and Schindler’s List.
The first half could certainly have moved faster—it makes the whole movie feel too long. And even at that, some wild details were omitted, such as during Lucas’s first trip to Asia where he barely survived the hazards of snakes, tigers, disease, and killer bandits who pursued his valuable freight. When the lives of Lucas and Roberts finally intersect, the film really takes off. This point comes too late in the film, but I say, bear with it. The stories are so exciting and the delivery so powerful that I actually applauded at the end. It’s a wild double saga not to be missed. B+