American Gangster is an ambitious 157-minute crime saga based on a real-life
Harlem criminal legend named Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the man who
eventually brought him down,
an honest cop named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). It's dripping with prestige. The principal actors are
superstars who can totally command the screen. The director is Ridley Scott,
whose credentials are impeccable. He has directed two of the best sci-fi movies of
all time (Alien and Blade Runner), and has received Oscar's "Best Director"
nomination for three of his other films: Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, and Thelma
The story itself is almost too good to be true, but the movie's script sticks fairly close to real
characters and events. or at least Frank Lucas's version of those events. Lucas was a
driver/enforcer for a legendary mob boss for 15 years. When his mentor died, he
was left with virtually nothing of consequence, but built himself a massive
heroin empire in the manner of a classic American entrepreneur. He realized that
there were far too many middle men between the heroin producers in Southeast
Asia and the junkies. Along the way, various corrupt criminals, ranging from top mafia bosses to
strung-out street dealers, were inflating their profits by cutting the
product and jacking up the price at every stage of the distribution process.
Lucas reasoned that if he could eliminate all the corruption and all the
intermediate steps in distribution, he could sell heroin with twice the existing
purity at half the existing price, thus cornering the market. At the time he had that epiphany, he was just
one man with no organization behind him, but he had a dream and he was willing
to risk everything for it, so he got his ass out into the jungle of the Golden
Triangle and met with a major drug lord face-to-face. The two pragmatic men
realized that they could become incredibly wealthy if Lucas could pull it
off, so Frank's supply was assured under reasonable conditions at a very reasonable
price. Through this
connection he was able to buy pure heroin at $4,200 per kilo, compared to the
$50,000 he would have had to pay his Mafia connection back in the states. The
next matter was importation into the United States, and Frank had the solution
to that as well. The Vietnam War was sending back planes full of military
coffins, and Frank knew a way to use a few properly placed bribes to get his
heroin a free ride on those planes. He flew a North Carolina carpenter over to
Bangkok. In Frank's words, "We had him make up 28 copies of the government
coffins ... except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up
with six, maybe eight kilos ... It had to be snug. You couldn't have shit
sliding around. We used heavy guys' coffins ... no skinny guys." The final
matter was distribution to the streets, which Frank handled by uprooting every one
of his relatives from their lives in the rural south and installing them in
"front" businesses in New York and north Jersey. He dealt only with people who
could trust completely.
Voila! He had created a massive criminal enterprise involving absolutely no
criminals except himself and a former Chinese general turned druglord, both of
whom were thrilled with the deal. Frank handled his business exactly the way a
major marketing company like Pepsi Co. would have. He gave his heroin a brand
name, and if he caught any street thugs cutting the product before selling it,
he told them that was their own business if the product was unbranded, but it
was Frank's business it they were selling it as Frank's brand. To sell an
inferior product with Frank's brand name was to invite a dirt nap, because Frank
could be as ruthless and violent as he needed to be to run his business
properly. That was part of the standard operating procedure in his particular
market segment. In a legal business enterprise, unethical competitors or
copyright infringers are eliminated with subpoenas. In Frank's business, the
same process required bullets.
Except for the fact that he sold heroin instead of computers, oil, or
hamburgers, the movie's version of Frank Lucas was a classic American
capitalist, and he behaved more like a CEO than a mobster. His personal habits
were abstemious. He was never noticeably drunk, stoned, or otherwise out of
control. He almost never went
out at night except to significant pop culture events attended by major celebs.
He lived in a Georgian mansion with his sainted
mother. His tailoring and grooming were immaculate. He went to Church regularly.
He insisted on decorous behavior from his family associates, both on the streets
and in their private lives. He took care of his neighborhood, donated to
charities, and once bailed out the legendary Joe Louis from a $50,000 personal
debt. What's more, Frank was a likeable guy.
When New York magazine interviewed Frank as an old man in the year 2000, they
summed him up like this:
"Braggart, trickster, and fibber along with everything else, Lucas was
nonetheless a living, breathing historical figure, a highly specialized
font of secret knowledge, more exotic, and certainly less picked over,
than any Don Corleone. He was a whole season of the black Sopranos
-- old-school division. The idea that a backwoods boy could maneuver
himself into position to tell at least a plausible lie about stashing 125
kilos of zum dope on Henry Kissinger's plane -- much less actually
do it -- mitigated a multitude of sins."
That fascinating Mark Jacobson article in the summer of 2000, "The Return
available online in its entirety, is what generated the idea for this
film. It took seven years to get it on the screen, but the movie has been kicking around in development for many years.
Frank Zaillan's script, originally titled Tru Blu (The Return of Superfly),
was around in 2003, and the film was originally expected to be
released in June of 2005. Both of the major roles have belonged to other
actors at one time or another, and at least four different directors have been associated
with the project at various times. The first was Brian de Palma. Shortly
after being brought in, De Palma said that the actors he wanted for Tru Blu would not be ready for another year and De
Palma himself had three different projects at that time, so he excused
himself from the project.
Antoine Fuqua was the next choice,
and he wanted Benicio del Toro for the role of Richie Roberts, but Fuqua
soon left over "creative differences." and the film was canceled.
In March 2005, American Gangster was revived as Universal began
negotiations with writer/director Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) to revise the
script and direct. The target budget was then $50 million. The following
May, actor Don Cheadle was approached to replace Denzel as Frank Lucas,
though no offer was made, pending George's script revision. As it turned
out, producer Brian
Grazer was not satisfied with George's concept and decided to return to Zaillian's vision.
up the story from there:
"In February 2006, director Ridley Scott entered talks with the studio
to take over American Gangster, returning to Zaillian's draft as
the film's basis. Washington returned to his role as Frank Lucas, and
Russell Crowe was attached to star as Detective Richie Roberts. Scott
chose to direct American Gangster based on the paradoxical values
of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. Lucas operated an ethical business
despite its illegal nature, and Roberts was a womanizer despite his status
as an authority figure. Washington, who was not normally a fan of gangster
films, chose to portray Lucas when he saw "the arc of the character" had
ended with prices that Lucas paid for his actions. Crowe was drawn to the
project based on his previous work with the director on Gladiator.
Production was slated in summer 2006. To prepare for their roles, the
actors met their real-life counterparts. Washington acquired Lucas's
Southern accent, and Crowe practiced to match Roberts's manner of speaking
and body language, requesting tape recordings of Roberts to assist in his
If I were a great director like Ridley Scott and wanted to make a
masterpiece, I don't believe I'd go for an epic crime saga. There is always
the danger of being left in the shadows of Goodfellas, Casino, The Godfather
I and II, The Departed, Once Upon a Time in America, and Miller's Crossing.
But Ridley is a genius in his own right and he emerged from the
giant shadows of Scorsese and Coppola, managing instead to stand upon their
giant shoulders. American Gangster doesn't feel like any of those previous
films. While it does portray Frank as a man of principle, much
as the first Godfather portrayed Don Corleone, its Southeast Asian locales
and mysterious Chinese General evoke the spirit of Coppola's Colonel Kurtz
rather than that of the director's Italian gangsters. Another unique element
is that the screenwriter broadened the magazine article's focus on Frank to
give equal time to the frumpy cop. A final bit of originality is that it may
be the only crime film that could be required viewing for an MBA program!
The real Frank Lucas was more pimped-out, more street-fly than the
conservative Fortune 500 sort of guy portrayed in this film, but the facts follow
reality quite closely, and I understand why the screenwriter made that
change. It brings the main characters into sharper contrast and thus allows the
film's points to come through more clearly. And yes, the film does have something
to say. American Gangster has some of the typical elements of a crime film, but
it is not an action movie so much as a cerebral and analytical look at the
dynamics of race, crime and success in America. Action
junkies may be disappointed by it, but I was not. I sat riveted to my chair
for the entire two and a half hours, eager to see how it would play out,
while relishing all the set pieces along the way. In fact, my strongest criticism
would be that the film is too short! It seems to have time for only two
- The details and atmosphere of Frank's business.
- The character development of Frank and Richie.
Many, many other characters pass through the plot's turnstiles, but they
remain basically strangers to us. Frank has five brothers who
comprise his inner circle, and I didn't get to know one from another.
Frank's mother and his rivals are almost cameo roles. Richie has a task
force working with him in the pursuit, but I really had no idea who those guys were, nor
did I really get locked into the various crooked cops running around in the
lengthy as the film is, it may be too ambitious for its running time.
That's a minor flaw, as I see it. I reckon that a film must be pretty
damned good if it runs 2 1/2 hours and I wish it were longer! It's that good
because the two things the film does
are done brilliantly. Besides, a longer running time
would simply not be practical in terms of the film's commercial prospects.
(But I would relish a much longer and typically obsessive Ridley Scott
director's cut on DVD!) Although American
Gangster is not without flaws,
this movie is definitely one you want to see. It takes a great yarn, spins
it well, and decorates it with the appropriate atmosphere to produce a story
which is kinda-sorta true, spellbinding, and not without greater cultural significance.