November 4, 2007 -- “American Gangster” is a crime drama based on a true story about one of the biggest crime bosses in the United States and the cops who brought him down. It is equal parts a procedural and a character study of two fascinating men. It gets into the nuts and bolts of a drug distribution scheme and how police work a case. It is a tale masterfully told by a great director and great actors. The production values are also top of the line from bottom to top.
Denzel Washington (“Man on Fire”) plays the drug lord, Frank Lucas, who rises from a rural nobody to the top drug lord of New York in the 1960s and 1970s. A top enforcer for Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III of “The General's Daughter”) Lucas learned the ropes for running a drug dealing operation by learning from his mentor (Bumpy) and by observing the Mafia. After Bumpy's death, Lucas took over and added his own twist. He used his connections in Vietnam to deal directly with suppliers in Southeast Asia and used military transport to get pure heroin smuggled into the United States. He was able to sell a stronger heroin mix on the street at a lower price than his competitors (the Mafia) and still make a huge profit. Eventually, he became a wholesale supplier of drugs to the Mafia, making him the top drug lord in New York. He kept a low profile, however, and did not attract attention to himself. Control of the organization stayed with himself and his extended family. Outsiders could not penetrate the organization, much like the Mafia.
Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (played by Russell Crowe of “Cinderella Man”) was working vice on the mean streets of New Jersey with his partner, Javier Rivera (John Ortiz of “Miami Vice”). When he and Rivera find a million dollars in the trunk of a car and turn it in, they both become pariahs in the corrupt police force. Nobody wants to work with them because they are suspected snitches, much like famed contemporary New York cop Frank Serpico. In addition to being a police outcast, his wife is also divorcing him because of his devotion to duty and his many affairs with other women.
With his career in the toilet, Roberts starts taking night classes to get his law degree, finally passing the Bar exam. He is eventually offered the job of heading up a county drug task force where he is able to recruit his own team of incorruptible investigators. He focuses on a new street product called “blue magic.” It is a cut of heroin so pure his former partner, Rivera, overdoses on the stuff and dies. After months of dead ends, including talks with Roberts old high school buddies in the mafia, he notices Lucas at a championship boxing match. Slowly, he begins to realize that Lucas is the new king of the drug trade in New York. Not only does he have to penetrate Lucas' tight organization, he has to get past the corrupt New York cops who are protecting Lucas. New York cops are heavily involved in the drug trade themselves. One of Roberts' key enemies, a detective Trupo (Josh Brolin, who is having a breakout year with solid performances in “In the Valley of Elah” and “No Country for Old Men”), heads up a New York drug task force.
The movie runs parallel stories of Lucas and Roberts, switching back and forth until the last act, when the two finally come face to face. One of the few common elements in the two stories is Trupo, who shakes down Lucas and harasses Roberts. Trupo doesn't want Roberts caught because he is a cash cow for Trupo and his corrupt buddies on the police force. Other key characters in the film are members of the families of Roberts and Lucas. Veteran actress Ruby Dee (“The Way Back Home”) plays the mother of Frank Lucas. She and Frank have a memorable showdown near the end of the film. Carla Gugino of “Night at the Museum” plays the wife of Roberts and Lymari Nadal of the “Battlestar Gallactica” TV series plays Eva, the wife of Lucas. The acting is great by everyone. Veteran director Ridley Scott (“Kingdom of Heaven”) puts it all together in a polished package. This film rates a B+.
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