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It's the mid-'70s, and heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) has brought his brothers up from North Carolina to partake in his astronomically lucrative business. As they're enjoying the morning in a sunny Harlem diner, he notices a rival standing on a nearby corner. Excusing himself, Frank marches across the street, confronts the troublemaker, shoots him blam in the head, then returns to his family — still waiting at the table, pretending not to have been watching out the window. They can't believe what they've just seen. This must be what Frank means when he talks about the importance of "fucking loyalty."
As the brothers stammer and stare, part afraid and part awed, the scene — both lurid and funny — showcases the problem at the center of American Gangster. As much as the film wants to appreciate the business acumen and personal charisma of Frank Lucas (and Denzel, after all), it's also stuck with a standard movie/moral obligation to condemn his brutality. The film's solution to these competing imperatives is hardly original, but it is telling. While Frank commits bad acts against worse antagonists (the man he shoots is a bully), the film also offers up a more familiar hero with whom Frank can parry, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).
Their stories run parallel in Ridley Scott's film, based on a true story (about the same dealer and murderer profiled in this week's episode of BET's American Gangster) and scripted by Steve Zaillian. This makes the 157 minutes running time seem equal parts epic and soap opera, as each man contends with domestic drama — about three minutes of unhappy ex-wife (Carla Gugino) for Richie, rocky romance with Miss Puerto Rico (Lymari Nadal) for Frank — as well as career choices. When Richie turns in nearly a million dollars worth of drug money rather than keep the unmarked bills for himself and his partner, the rest of the bad cops reject this "Boy Scout" for showing them up. And when Frank determines to own his own company so he can become "white-man rich," very unlike his mentor Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), he irks the other dealers and pimps.
The film provides context for Frank's ambition. For one thing, his desire to expand on Bumpy's limited view leads directly to his own blindness. When Bumpy dies in the first scene, in a department store, a background TV shows the war in Vietnam, just as Bumpy laments, "This is the problem, what's happening in America: It's gotten too big, you can't find your way." Frank's solution is exactly what's wrong: His empire is huge, but even as he gives out turkeys off a truck for Thanksgiving, he is making addicts of his "community" to increase his number of customers.
The film spends much time on the colorful details of Frank's operation, from his decision to travel personally to war-torn Southeast Asia to secure middle-manless product (and then ship it in the coffins of U.S. troops), to his employment of bare-breasted ladies to package the heroin (one of Frank's brainstorms re-created in New Jack City). Such determination almost looks admirable in American Gangster, which intercuts his increasing nuttiness (a blowup over a blood spot on his white carpet) with his much-proclaimed love for his mama (Ruby Dee).
At this point, Richie and his dedicated undercover crew (which includes RZA and Ruben Santiago-Hudson) are hot on Frank's trail. Their paths cross when Frank's humongous success makes him careless, literally drawing attention to himself by wearing a chinchilla coat to a big fight. The initial irony is that Frank understands the costs of excess ("The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room," he asserts), but in this succumbs to his wife's gaudy taste.
The further irony is the mutual respect that develops between Richie and Frank, partly because Richie is a white guy who assumes Frank is fully capable of creating his empire. And so they share a sort of moral code after all, one premised on racial equality. As corny as this relationship may be, it returns again to the movie's central problem: It loves Frank but has to hate him, too.
Directed by Ridley Scott
A Universal Pictures release