Judge Victor Valdivia wishes he was living in Harlem in the early '70s. Of course, if that were the case he would then have been typing reviews for a mimeographed newsletter named View Master Verdict.
Our reviews of American Gangster: The Complete First Season (published December 12th, 2007), American Gangster: The Complete Second Season (published June 26th, 2008), American Gangster (Blu-Ray) (published October 23rd, 2008), and American Gangster (HD DVD) (published February 19th, 2008) are also available.
There are two sides to the American dream.
American Gangster marks director Ridley Scott's first foray into gangster epics. While the film is a cut above most and shows the kind of first-rate craftsmanship of Scott's best work, it's not quite the knockout punch it should be.
Facts of the Case
It's 1968 in Harlem. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington, Malcolm X) has served as the bodyguard and surrogate son to legendary gangster Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III, The Mod Squad). When Johnson dies, Lucas decides the time has come to modernize the Harlem drug trade and skip any middlemen by directly importing pure heroin from Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe, The Insider), one of the few cops in the drug department who isn't hopelessly corrupt, pieces together an investigation into the source of this new and uncut heroin suddenly flooding the streets.
More than any other gangster since Al Capone, Frank Lucas was a product of his time and place. In the same way that Capone's rise to power simply would have inconceivable without Prohibition, Frank Lucas would never have become the king of New York City's heroin underworld at any other time than the late 1960s and early '70s. Without the Vietnam War, it would have been impossible for Frank to make the necessary drug connections. The rise of heroin addiction among Vietnam vets and the presence of Americans in the opium poppy-rich fields of Southeast Asia made Frank's plan to import the purest heroin from the region much easier. Similarly, the rise of addiction in richer, more suburban neighborhoods (again, another consequence of the war) led to the creation of a new kind of crooked cop whose brand of corruption was so methodical that it made sure that Frank could stave off being busted for as long as possible. If the NYPD hadn't been as riddled with greed from within as it was at the time, it probably would have been able to mount a better campaign against Frank much earlier than it finally did.
American Gangster tells the story by alternating scenes between Frank and Richie, who are slowly being drawn together as Richie's investigation progresses and Frank's enemies close in on him. The two men are not as different as they superficially appear. Early on, Richie's honesty is established in a scene where he and his partner, tailing a bookie, uncover a cache of $1 million. In a move that forever earns him enmity and causes him to be banished from the department, Richie turns the money in without taking a piece for himself. But for all that Richie prides himself on not being bent, in his personal life he's hardly a paragon of virtue. He's an absent and unfaithful husband, not much of a father, and he still cheerfully consorts with his old buddies from childhood, most of who happen to be members of the New York mob. This is brought home when his wife (Carla Gugino, Sin City), in the middle of a divorce hearing, says bluntly that by refusing to take payoffs at work, he thinks he's entitled to take ethical lapses in every other aspect of his life.
By contrast, while Frank is indeed a ruthless drug kingpin, in his personal life he strives to maintain the illusion of a stable, low-key businessman. Taking his lesson from his mentor Bumpy Johnson, Frank dresses in sharp but not colorful suits, marries a Puerto Rican beauty queen, and stays home nearly every night, not bothering to maintain a party lifestyle. He brings up most of his family from South Carolina and even takes his mother (Ruby Dee, Jungle Fever) to church every Sunday. His inconspicuous lifestyle is in marked contrast to Harlem's other heroin titan, Leroy "Nicky" Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr., Snow Dogs). Nicky wears flamboyant clothes, always calls attention to himself loudly, and even hands out copies of The New York Times Magazine with his picture on the cover. Frank and Nicky are natural opponents, not just because they are both competing for the same lucrative market in drugs, but because their distinct methods of operating their empires clash bitterly, leading to a deadly rivalry.
In fact, Frank is a man beset by enemies. By personally flying out to Thailand and arranging a deal with one of the nation's opium warlords to supply him with the finest uncut heroin, he has eliminated the need for any middlemen. Prior to Frank, most of the smack in Harlem has flowed through Cosa Nostra dealers. Frank's ascendancy to the top of Harlem's food chain has not made the Italians happy, and there is much grumbling from Mafiosi about the nerve of a black man thinking he can cut into the Mob's profits. And then there's Lt. Trupo (Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men), the voracious head of the Special Investigations Unit. Trupo epitomizes the new breed of corrupt cops in the drug department, and he quickly becomes a thorn in Frank's side, although his ruthless greed eventually inflicts itself on Richie as well. As Frank struggles to keep his business together, he faces an array of formidable foes, none of whom will stop until he is out of business, one way or another.
American Gangster marks Ridley Scott's first attempt at the kind of gangster film that directors like Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann excel at. Though Scott has done everything from sci-fi to period pieces to gritty dramas, this is his first crime epic. For the most part, it's a well-made, entertaining film. The performances are uniformly first-rate. Not just Washington and Crowe, who are as great as usual, but also stalwart supporting players like Dee, Ted Levine (as Richie's boss), Joe Morton (as one of Frank's cronies), and especially Brolin, who is utterly loathsome as Trupo. Scott manages to extract some very good performances from rappers RZA, as one of Richie's cops, and T.I. and Common, both of whom play members of Frank's family. Even Cuba Gooding, who has wasted his talent over the last decade in schlock like Boat Trip, will surprise many with his impressive performance as Nicky Barnes. The film also looks great. The production design and costumes capture the early '70s atmosphere perfectly, without lapsing into camp or kitsch. Though the film tells a long and complex story, and lays out many important details, it's never confusing or meandering. It's a very good film, but it's not quite the masterpiece it so clearly wants to be.
One reason is that even though the film is called American Gangster, and is ostensibly about Frank's criminal career, it's really Richie who is the heart of the film. His character is outlined in far greater detail than Frank and audiences will find it easier to identify with him. Frank, for all his screen time, comes off as rather cold and remote. Part of that is by design, so that when Frank does, on a couple of occasions, shatter his cool veneer and erupts in violence, the scenes are appropriately startling and horrific. But they seem to come out of nowhere, since we've never really seen much of Frank's dark side. Unlike, for instance, Tony Montana in Scarface, Frank isn't depicted as someone with a raging ambition. He seems to become Harlem's drug lord out of some sense of obligation, rather than a burning desire to conquer the world. Even his brainstorm to fly to Thailand and cut a deal for pure smack seems an afterthought. This gives his character less dramatic weight than he should have, so that when Frank's empire finally collapses, the scene doesn't really pack the wallop that it should. Frank only drops his mask once, towards the end, when he discusses a shocking incident from his childhood, and it's one of the best moments in the film.
Another reason why Frank doesn't register fully is that the film spends a lot of time on the relationship between Frank and his wife Eva (Lymari Danal, Battlestar: Galactica), and her character isn't very memorable. Danal does what she can, but mostly, she's just called upon to smile and look supportive, or on occasion, to cry and look supportive. The film does a better job of explaining the relationship Frank has with his family, especially his mother, but these scenes aren't enough to make Frank come off more vividly, considering he's the film's protagonist. It's a mark of how the script could have used a bit more polishing to flesh out Frank's character that Nicky Barnes sometimes makes a far more likely candidate to be the king of Harlem than Frank does.
Despite those flaws, American Gangster is still a film worth seeing. Far from glamorizing or romanticizing Frank, it certainly doesn't shy away from displaying the aftereffects of his reign. One chilling scene contrasts Frank's elegant, homey Thanksgiving with scenes of Harlem's junkies wallowing in squalor thanks to his product. The film also puts Frank's ascendancy and reign into historical context. By using TV news footage of the Vietnam War, it not only marks the times, but also explains how Frank was a product of the era. The late '60s and early '70s were a time of enormous social, racial, and economic change, and those changes affected the criminal underworld as much as they affected any other part of society. The film succeeds in painting a portrait of the era and one man's effects on it. If it doesn't succeed in really letting us inside Frank's head, it does reveal, carefully and methodically, the consequences of his actions. In that sense, American Gangster is worth recommending even for those who don't usually like crime dramas.
American Gangster is displayed in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer is very good, although there is some film grain evident during dimly-lit scenes, especially in nightclubs. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio mix is loud during gunshots and explosions, but the dialogue tends to sound a bit quiet.
The disc includes both the original theatrical release and a new, longer, unrated version. The differences between the original cut and the new unrated cut are not major. Mainly the new cut just has a few extra lines of dialogue here and there. There's some additional dialogue from Bumpy Johnson, some more shots of Richie and his team doing surveillance, and another brief exchange that explains why boxing champ Joe Louis owes Frank a debt of gratitude. One new scene, when Richie is informed that as a result of his investigation he now has a price on his head, could have been left in the original version, as it helps to explain the character's change to paranoia and fatalism halfway through the story. The biggest difference is the ending, which extends the closing shot for several minutes and follows with an exchange between the two main characters. While most of the longer version is worth seeing, as it contains some nice added characterization and dialogue, the new ending is terrible, with some of the dialogue sounding like it came from a bad '80s buddy-cop movie. The original ending, with its poetic and uncertain final shot, is superior.
The set is loaded with extras. The original theatrical version (but not the extended version, curiously) has commentary by Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian. It's a superb commentary, with Zaillian discussing the themes and stories behind the script, and Scott talking about the production. There are no gaps or pauses, and it never gets too technical or confusing. It's a must for any fan of the film.
The remaining extras are all on Disc Two. First are two deleted scenes, "Alternate Opening" (1:03) and "Frank and Eva's Wedding (2:44). The alternate opening is just an extension of the very last, post-credits shot of Frank shooting the camera, and the wedding is just what it says. Neither is significant, but it's nice to have them.
The more substantive extra is the lengthy making-of documentary "Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster," split up into five chunks: "Tru Blu: The Real Story" (21:21), "Killer Threads: Costumes" (11:18), "Crime War: Production" (20:55), "Into the Arena: Ali vs. Frazier" (8:52), and "Rhythm of the Street: Sound, Music, and Editing" (15:53). These are also viewable with a "Play All" option. It's certainly exhaustive, with every single aspect of the production detailed in full, right down to the fake dummies used to fill the arena during a boxing match. The most compelling parts are the interviews with the real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, who discuss the true stories behind the film in detail. It's worth seeing just for that alone, but the remaining info is interesting too. Also included is "Case Files," a set of three behind-the-scenes video segments: "Script Meeting" (8:14), "Heroin Test Show & Tell" (8:58), and "Setting up the Takedown" (7:46). These can viewed with a "Play All" option as well. "Script Meeting" is footage of a meeting between Scott, Roberts, and Zaillian to discuss some script notes, "Heroin Test" shows Scott and his technical advisers discussing how to stage a test for the purity of heroin, and "Takedown" is just some raw footage from the shooting of the climactic bust. They're all mildly fascinating, but not the sort of thing you'll want to watch over and over again.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Exactly how accurate is American Gangster? That question has been bandied about since the film's release and many stories have begun to circulate that the film takes far too many liberties with the real story. In fact, three drug enforcement agents even sued for libel, arguing that the film was complete fiction. While it's foolish to expect exact truth from a fictional work, it's still worth noting that the film is based mostly on the recollections of Lucas and Roberts, and Lucas does not exactly have a reputation for veracity. Both Scott and Zaillian mention in various places that sometimes Lucas would contradict himself, which essentially left it up to them to create some scenes. It's also true that some of the characters, in particular Trupo, are actually composites from various real-life people. Nonetheless, while some may argue that parts of the film are fabricated, almost no one contends that the most crucial and pivotal elements—Frank's rise to power, the police corruption, and the direct connection to Southeast Asia—didn't happen. If some elements were fabricated or pumped up for Hollywood, that's certainly within the standards of making a film based on a true story.
Though American Gangster sometimes winds up being more Richie Roberts' story than Frank Lucas', it's still an entertaining film worth seeing for anyone who's looking for an intelligent crime drama. It's not in the same league as GoodFellas, but it's one of Ridley Scott's better efforts.
American Gangster is found not guilty through craftsmanship and talent, even if it doesn't quite reach the mythic stature it wants to. Universal is praised for putting together a comprehensive DVD package that will please fans.
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