AMERICAN GANGSTER(director: Ridley Scott; screenwriters: Steven Zaillian/based on the New York magazine article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson; cinematographer: Harris Savides; editor: Pietro Scalia; music: Marc Streitenfeld; cast: Denzel Washington (Frank Lucas), Russell Crowe (Richie Roberts), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Huey Lucas), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Nicky Barnes), Josh Brolin (Detective Trupo), Roger Guenveur Smith (soldier drug contact in Vietnam), Ted Levine (Lou Toback), Armand Assante (Dominic Cattano), John Ortiz (Javier J. Rivera), John Hawkes (Freddie Spearman), RZA (Moses Jones), Lymari Nadal (Eva), Yul Vazquez (Alfonse Abruzzo), Ruby Dee (Mama Lucas), Idris Elba (Tango), Carla Gugino (Laurie Roberts), Joe Morton (Charlie Williams), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Doc), Roger Guenveur Smith (Nate), Roger Bart (United States attorney), Chuck Cooper (private doctor), Linda Powell (social worker), Ritchie Coster (Joey Sadano), Clarence Williams 111 (Bumpy Johnson); Runtime: 158; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Brian Grazer/Ridley Scott; Universal Pictures; 2007)
“It all seemed like the usual big-budgeted and star-packed middlebrow liberal Hollywood gangster film veering between being serious and nonsensical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A flashy big-budget studio gangster flick that could be viewed as a combination of the black “Scarface” and the Jewish “Serpico.” The material, though based on a true story, is all too routine to offer any real surprises (the biggest revelation being how the heroin is shipped from Vietnam to Harlem, which serves as the film’s political metaphor about America). When the dust clears in this overlong, lethargic, self-important and overly ambitious film there’s a feeling of emptiness (pretentious in believing it’s telling a great American story, as it’s only able to fumble through telling a tourist’s tale of drug trafficking in the Harlem of the early 1970s and a somewhat disjointed view of the war between good and bad cops that can’t explain its good cops but can only show them sloppily dressed when compared to the well-dressed bad eggs). The out of his area of expertise British filmmaker Ridley Scott (“Alien”/ “Hannibal”/ “Gladiator”) directs a well-crafted and loud film, but one that has no soul, leaves us with an incredibly phony Harlem that looks like it was created in the studio by a filmmaker who was never in that part of town, its characters are thinly drawn and the black drug lord never gets an edge like the gangstas did even in the questionable blaxploitation films of the 1970s such as Superfly. It’s based on the New York magazine article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson and is written by Steven Zaillian.

Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.

It follows two opposite guys and tells two different stories that mesh together, as it veers back and forth between them as each guy chases after a different slice of the American Dream. One guy is black while the other one is white. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is the romanticized black gangster who rose from his poor southern beginnings and became the driver and trusted right hand man to an old-school Harlem drug kingpin named Bumpy Johnson. When he died ironically in a new giant chain-store Harlem electronic store that he hated because it had no middlemen, Frank inherited his mob and found a new empire by finding a way to eliminate the middlemen in his drug business by buying the drugs straight from their source in the Southeast Asian jungle. By using a unique way to smuggle in heroin on his own while the Vietnam war was raging from 1969 to 1975 (transporting the pure drugs in the coffins of US soldiers returning from Vietnam), Frank was able to make a great profit and sold a high-quality product of smack he labeled as Blue Magic at a cheaper price than his rivals. This made the conservatively dressed gangster, who prided himself on being a good businessman and operating under the radar, top dog in the streets of Harlem and supposedly a hero to his people (buying from the local black man instead of the Italian is somehow equated in his twisted mind with being like a Martin Luther King for his people). The other guy, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), is a Jewish cop (he wears a Star of David) living in New Jersey, who wrecks his marriage and loses control of his child in a bitter custody fight because he’s a workaholic and a womanizer. While doing detective police work by day and attending college at night, the ambitious Richie passes the bar exam. On the job, Richie turns in a million dollars of unmarked bills during a stakeout of a car from a tip by a bookie he busted, despite his partner’s objections, something we are led to believe no other cop on the force would do (his kind of dumb integrity leaves him alone and out on an island, rejected by both family and colleagues). Since most of the NYC cops are supposedly on the take, Richie is deemed in the precinct house as someone who can’t be trusted because he’s honest and willing to take food out of their mouths. But Richie is oblivious to his enemies and when placed in charge of a federal narcotics squad as an acting prosecutor, he and his motley lowlife crew of hand-picked honest and hardworking cops go after Frank until they bring down his drug empire. Each guy is a success story, but they both always have to watch their backs: Frank is threatened by a pimp-dressing rival Harlem dealer Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a scary bad cop on the Special Investigative Unit who shakes down the dealers (Josh Brolin), and an Italian skeet-shooting mob boss whom he is forced to make a business deal with in order to expand (Armand Assante); while Richie is a visionary determined to make America a better place, he is nevertheless coldly received by the other men in blue. Frank is even depicted as possibly the better man because he’s a caring family man (bought mom a mansion in the area suburbs) and a great businessman, but he’s too violent, corrupt and greedy and though more saluted than the other guy he’s brought down to size by the film’s end as a fallen hero.

It all seemed like the usual big-budgeted and star-packed middlebrow liberal Hollywood gangster film veering between being serious and nonsensical, cheering on the successful gangster protagonist for being able to get to the top on his own (it’s even more special because a black man beats whitey at his own game, and one of the reasons he escaped detection for so long was because the cops couldn’t believe a black man built such a structured empire), but then having a twinge of social conscience and ripping him for either getting caught or doing crimes that can’t be excused. The charismatic drug lord shows his fangs when he torches some sucka for whatever, or slams one of his crude henchman’s head against the piano for bloodying his expensive alpaca rug, or without consequences he shoots a sassy black hood in the head in the street in broad daylight. These are the kind of thriller scenes that appeal to a large part of the audience that have come to love crime films for the odd violent mannerisms of the bad guys, and when people say the film was exciting it’s mainly because of these exploitative scenes. Denzel plays his character without humor in a low-key way except for those above named gangsta props; he’s viewed as a pretty decent feller who goes to church on Sunday with mom (Ruby Dee), takes good care of his five brothers, treats his Puerto Rican beauty queen wife (Lymari Nadal) like a real queen and personally hands out turkeys on Thanksgiving to the Harlem residents. The point made, which I don’t think is unquestionably true, is that being a big-time drug dealer fits in with capitalism and the American way better than does a whistle blowing or honest cop. Frank’s easily accepted, albeit as an outsider, by America’s pop culture, club and sport scene; while the honest cop, also an outsider, is not only not accepted by such esteemed company but his peers and family also don’t accept him (in real life, the article by Jacobson points out 52 out of 70 officers in New York’s Narcotics Special Investigations Unit were indicted and/or convicted by 1977 thanks largely to Richie). The cop is paid a low salary and asked to do a nearly impossible dirty job, which doesn’t always get the thanks it deserves from an ungrateful society that easily worships at the feet of celebrity or wealth or colorful crime figures and ignores the real heroes (like this pic does). By the end of this Hollywood fantasy take on being a gangster, where the bad guy seems to be getting all the love, the film’s stale main point about the comparison of the high-living drug lord and the struggling economically honest cop seems not only to be trivialized but recycled from the much more convincing and compelling The French Connection.