Add Frank Lucas to the list of canonical cinematic badasses. Ranking somewhere between Sam Spade and Shaft, Lucas (Denzel Washington) is just as quick to light up your smoke as he is to light up a foe with point-blank shots to the head from his Luger. He is at once kind and vicious, honest and brutal. He is a self-made man. He is an “American Gangster.”
Using Mark Jacobson’s feature article from New York magazine, “The Return of Superfly,” as his source, director Ridley Scott does his best Scorsese in tracing the rise and fall of one of Harlem’s most notorious drug kingpins of the 1970s. And get this: he’s black!
The film picks up after the death of Lucas’s mentor, “Bumpy” Johnson (played by Clarence Williams III), who urges his protg to rule the streets in the name of American capitalism.
The gritty landscape of New York City streets, captured with a keen sense of periodic detail, is Lucas’s playground as he uses his muscle to pimp out the same system that keeps his race captive to corruptive forces like the New York Narcotics Agency.
Like the frequently-alluded-to protagonists of 1970’s blaxploitation films such as Superfly and Black Caesar, Lucas fails by no means in sticking it to the man and exercising ethnic pride, all while getting by as a successful venture capitalist. My man!
The story of Lucas is intercut with that of Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a police detective faced with the daunting task of getting to the source of the city’s rampant drug problem. Whereas Lucas’s story is one of material triumph, Roberts’s is much more personal.
Denzel Washington prospers as Lucas, balancing his dark underbelly of power with a credible sense of charm and sincerity, but the film would not be complete without the equally convincing performance of Crowe as the upright detective.
Just wait until the film’s jaw-dropping conclusion, when he and Denzel cross paths and butt heads in a chess-match of a scene that rivals DeNiro and Pacino having at it for the first time in “Heat.”
Detractors will say that the film fails to do justice to Lucas’s rise to prominence as, say, a film like “Scarface” does. This is not a bad thing. Do we really need another film that’s exclusively contained within the framework of a fantasy world of gunfights and material excess? If that’s what you look for in your films, go play video games.
While we are indeed treated with a handful of frenetic shoot-outs, money-shots (I mean that literally and figuratively) and “Holy shit!” moments (the street scene is incredible), “American Gangster” is rightfully more concerned with the shapeless institutions that run our country and how they have the potential to make an honest man weary than with ways to get rich quick. If this film were a rapper, it would be 2Pac and it would be beating the shit out of 50 Cent.
Yes, “American Gangster” may be doomed to the helpless fate of being overly long while failing to tell a complete story, but its mainstream appeal is maintained by its resistance to enter the realm of “street epic.”
This is a good movie – a modern day blaxploitation film, minus the exploitation. Like the black character it portrays, this film represents the scary concept of real progress. It’s honesty vs. power in the battle of the century. Don’t be surprised when you find out who wins.
Milbrand is a member of the class of 2008.