American Gangster (2007) dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe
“American Gangster” surprised me by setting itself apart from “Carlito’s Way”, “Casino” and “Goodfellas”. Ridley Scott's film is more like Michael Mann’s “Heat” than anything else. It’s set in the 70’s but it’s not about the 70’s. The film is also worthy of the starcasting of Crowe and Washington as adversaries on opposite sides of the New York heroin drug war. Ridley Scott directs a surprisingly lean and focused film about the exploitation of American capitalism. Despite its simple title, it’s a smart film about a complex business.
The film takes place between 1968 and 1976. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a bagman for a local Harlem mobster who dies at the opening of the film. A number of other gangsters quickly assemble to fill the void. Lucas sees his opportunity and sets off to become top of the food chain in the drug business. Lucas is as smart a businessman as he is a thug and Ridley Scott shows us in detail Lucas’s passionate dedication to creating his empire. Lucas is an early globalist and actually makes a trip into the jungles of Thailand to buy pure heroin at the source. Meanwhile, the cops led by an undercover agent with Serpico-like scruples named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) frantically searches for the supplier of Lucas’s new brand of potent Heroin. The film becomes a cat and mouse game between the two characters over the course of 8 years. And in the end they find out they have more in common than they realize.
The underlying theme of the film is capitalism - how Frank Lucas used all the skills and experience from his lifetime of crime to exploit the economic system of supply and demand. He establishes a personal set of rules which allows him to quickly replace the boss of Harlem (like Tom Peters' "In Search For Excellence" adapted to the drug trade) 1) show strength and confidence. 2) Bypass the wholesaler and buy straight from the source 3) Sell a good quality product and low prices – watch Lucas’s confrontation with Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) for a wonderful scene demonstrating his firm grasp of this pricing principal. Lucas’s fourth rule may only apply to drug dealers – keep a low profile.
Lucas indeed keeps a low profile and uses race to his advantage. Lucas goes about his business with little flair and flash as his competitors- the Italian mob. In a city where the Italian mob rules the streets Lucas, as a black man, stays off Roberts’ radar for a long time. There’s a scene midway through the film where Lucas loses concentration and slips up. It’s a minor moment with drastic ramifications. When Lucas realizes his mistake it’s a great moment of acting for Denzel.
Russell Crowe matches Denzel’s chops in the acting department but writer Steve Zaillian is a little sloppy in fleshing out his character. Roberts has a child with his ex-wife Laurie (Carla Gugino) and is going through a custody hearing. The contradiction for Roberts is that for a man so responsible in his job he shows a remarkable lack of responsibility in his family life. This is all in the script, but it’s told to Roberts (and us) in dialogue. Roberts doesn’t learn it for himself. In the end Roberts makes a sacrifice to do the right thing, but it's too much of an aside to affect his life and his work.
Aside from a few songs and one music montage “American Gangster” stays away from being a nostalgia-fest. Films about the 70’s usually feature the songs of the era to put the audience in the period ie. De Palma’s disco-Godfather tale “Carlito’s Way” or Scorsese’s Rolling Stones-heavy “Casino”. Scott creates his own path in the genre by limiting his use of period music. In addition Scott’s colour palette is dark and muted. The film is rooted in the New York City grey, as opposed to the disco colours of the other aforementioned films. As such “American Gangster” doesn’t look like a film about the 70’s, which allows it to exist on its own.
“American Gangster” is a refreshing take on the cinematic world of New York mobsters. Ridley Scott is certainly more than comfortable with action, but his film is heavy on character and procedure and low on action. The film works best as an enlightening essay on the economics of drugs and how well it adapts into American big business. Enjoy.