‘There are two sides to the American dream.’
Steven Zaillian (screenplay)
Mark Jacobson (article)
Denzel Washington (Frank Lucas), Russell Crowe (Richie Roberts), Josh Brolin (Detective Trupo), Lymari Nadal (Eva), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Huey Lucas), Ted Levine (Lou Toback), John Hawkes (Freddy Spearman), RZA (Moses Jones), Armand Assante (Dominic Cattano), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Nicky Barnes)
Ridley Scott has worked in a lot of different genres, including science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner), historic epic (Gladiator), road movie (Thelma and Louise) and thriller (Hannibal). With American Gangster he added another genre to his very impressive resume.
As with many of the great gangster films, the basis of American Gangster is a true story. Frank Lucas (Washington) is a special kind of incarnation of the American dream. When his mentor, drugs kingpin Bumpy Johnson dies, Lucas replaces him as Harlem’s number one drug lord. His power quickly spreads throughout the whole of New York and New Jersey and he even becomes bigger than the Italian Mafia. He is opposed by Richie Roberts (Crowe). An honest cops who fights corruption and injustice while all of his colleagues are on the take.
So far nothing new. Scott attracted many great talents for his movie, but what makes Lucas’ story special? When viewing this, it is hard not to think of other films that have preceded American Gangster. The cop Vs. the gangster story reminds of Heat, and Lucas buying drugs in the Southeast Asian jungle is reminiscent of Blow. And when observing black dealers and users in the streets, countless of Blaxploitation films come to mind. Not in the least place because Scott uses the all-familiar song Across 110th Street, like Tarantino did in Jackie Brown.
Well, one of the things that makes the story special, is the way Lucas smuggles his dope into the USA. Namely in body bags of killed US soldiers that served in Vietnam. The fact that Lucas profits from his country’s pointless struggle against communism and narcotics has a great taste of irony. That aside, we have seen most of this before. But it doesn’t really matter. The film is so entertaining that one can easily forgive it for its little original premise. The great casting, production design and visual style alone make this a totally enjoyable experience. Washington is very convincing in his first gangster portrayal and Crowe also turns in another excellent performance as law enforcer.
The supporting cast features many great familiar faces such as Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, Jon Polito, RZA and Idris Elba, who have all played gangster types before. The cast, Scott’s visual style and the detailed seventies settings ensure that there is not a boring moment in the whole movie. Kudos to Scott who was already seventy years old when making this. He definitely made the grade.
FRANK LUCAS: “Nobody owns me though. That’s because I own my own company, and my company sells a product that’s better than the competition. At a lower price than the competition.”
James Gandolfini was offered the role of detective Trupo, but turned it down.