American Gangster


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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 and Louise.

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 of Superfly," 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.

Wikipedia picks 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 preparation."

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 things:

  • 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 subplots. As 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.


* widescreen anamorphic

* whatever







4 Roger Ebert (of four stars)
3 James Berardinelli (of four stars)
4 BBC (of 5 stars)
79 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
76 Metacritic  (of 100)










8.1 IMDB summary (of 10)
  (Top 250)










Box Office Mojo A hit. $130 million in the USA and another $130 million elsewhere. It opened at #1 with a $43 million weekend.







There are about three minutes worth of nudity, including full frontal and rear exposure from several females. Every single bit of it is from anonymous performers.

Most of it comes from the workers in the heroin trade, who were made to work naked except for the filters over their mouths.

There are two other completely meaningless bits of nudity:

  • Russell Crowe is in bed with a woman when he answers his phone and his bodily movement exposes the woman's breast very briefly. Her face is never seen.
  • Frank's cousin is in a brothel in Southeast Asia, and a quick camera pan reveals a butt and some partially exposed breasts from some hookers.


Although the film sticks close to the truth as told by Frank Lucas, more objective sources have cast doubts on most of Frank's claims. As New Criminologist has pointed out:

"Frank Lucas, the 1970s Harlem drug trafficker, upon whose criminal career the movie American Gangster is based, has made many claims to fame. Among others, he was the right hand man of Bumpy Johnson, the legendary Harlem godfather; Bumpy, according to Lucas, even died in his arms. Lucas boasts that he was the first black gangster to become independent of La Cosa Nostra. In fact, Lucas claims, they came to him. In selling the purest heroin on the streets of New York City, he became the biggest drug dealer of the 1970s. And he never snitched on anybody except corrupt law enforcement officials, Lucas insists, or at the least the movie does. 

All of these claims are questionable, but to this dirty laundry list we must perhaps the most bogus one of all-- that he pioneered the Asian heroin connection."






Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a: