American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s epic about the rise and fall of heroin honcho Frank Lucas, should prove as lucrative as the trademark “Blue Magic” powder the entrepreneurial pusher blew around Harlem. Oscar-certified box-office guarantors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe mix it up with rappers RZA, T.I. and Common, who perform their cops-and-crooks routine to a funky soundtrack in superfly couture and coif. The curious supporting cast of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, Armand Assante, Carla Gugino and Ruby Dee will tempt skeptical cineastes to part with the price of a ticket. And the slick but satisfying screenplay by Steven Zaillian, enriched by nostalgic sets and costumes, sustains interest despite the film’s too generous running time. As we said in the ’70s, that’s entertainment.
Lucas, as portrayed by Washington, is smart and smooth, as was the real dealer who grew up poor in North Carolina and knocked around the South before bumming his way to New York as a teenager. There he ingratiated himself to the legendary “Bumpy” Johnson, godfather of Harlem, who made him his driver and taught him the art of racketeering. When Bumpy died (the opening scene in American Gangster features Mod Squader Clarence Williams III as the stricken Johnson), Lucas exponentially expanded the Harlem heroin market by expropriating the corporate model and eliminating the middle man—that is, the Mafia—in favor of his own “cradle to grave” operation, so called because Lucas smuggled his kilos directly from Southeast Asia in false-bottomed coffins of American soldiers killed in Vietnam.
Crowe plays Richie Roberts, an honest but adulterous detective with a haircut as bad as his attitude. The real Roberts, infamous for turning in a million dollars “found” on a stakeout, gets the usual cinematic makeover, morphing into a Dirty Harry who substitutes petty rules like due process with his own code of conduct. His willful behavior ostracizes him from his more pedestrian (and corrupt) colleagues, but the feds, personified by Ted Levine as a proto-DEA company man, consider him perfectly suited to lead their untouchable anti-drug task force.
The deputized Roberts recruits the motley mix of undercover agents (featuring Wu-Tang’s RZA, who since his performance has urged the hip-hop community to be more supportive of police) that eventually take down Lucas and his Country Boys crew (with T.I., recently arrested on a serious weapons charge, as the golden-armed nephew who spurns the Yankees in order to be just like his Uncle Frank).
American Gangster ends with the obligatory shootout assuaged by a feel-good denouement, but the movie is more melodrama than crime story, more Giant than GoodFellas. Lucas and Roberts live out their parallel fates over the course of two hours before they square off, alternating scenes chronicling domestic triumphs and setbacks: Washington welcoming mother Ruby Dee and extended family to their ill-gotten mansion in the woods; Crowe losing custody of his son to his short-suffering ex-wife (Carla Gugino).
Crowe, as he was in Cinderella Man, is convincing and likeable as the flawed but sincere working-class hero, but the movie belongs to Washington, who lends Frank Lucas (still walking the streets of Harlem) irresistible charisma. Scott, Zaillian and producer Brian Grazer have re-imagined the underworld kingpin as an urbane CEO managing a multi-million-dollar enterprise, and Washington plays into the conceit. We watch him work the celebrity-stacked room of the notorious Smalls nightclub in Harlem, take meetings in the mahogany-lined study of mob boss Armand Assante, and play the patriarch at the family Thanksgiving gathering (stylized as a Norman Rockwell illustration). But the talented actor saves his best chops for Lucas the cold-blooded killer, the thug willing to shoot a rival through the forehead on a crowded sidewalk in broad daylight.
The notion of Lucas as alternative businessman, constructing his American dream as best he can given the restrictions of his race, class and background, is strictly Hollywood—and fairly typical of this entertaining if formulaic movie. The filmmakers know their audience and spin a good story, the cast is wonderfully diverse and engaging, the production first-rate. American Gangster, like a packet of “Blue Magic,” guarantees a rush…pleasurable and ephemeral.