This movie may be the most important release during the autumn of 2007.
American Gangster is an ambitious 157-minute crime saga based on a real-life
Harlem criminal legend named Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and his antagonist,
an honest cop named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). The principal actors are
superstars who can totally command the screen. It was directed by Ridley Scott,
whose credentials are impeccable. He's directed two of the best sci-fi movies of
all time (Alien and Blade Runner), and he has received Oscar's "Best Director"
nomination for three of his other films: Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, and Thelma
The story is almost too good to be true, but it is based on real characters and
events, and the movie script sticks fairly close to reality. 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
mafia bosses to 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. 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 his dream
off, so the 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 moving 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 or stoned. He almost never went
out at night except to significant pop culture events attended by major celebs.
He hung out with Sammy Davis. 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
available online in its entirety, is what generated the idea for this
film. The movie has been kicking around in development for many years.
Frank Zaillan's script, originally titled Tru Blu (The Return of Superfly),
has been around since 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.
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
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 his own man and I feel that he managed to emerge 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. It gives just about equal time to the charismatic Frank Lucas and his
frumpy pursuer, and 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 his Italian gangsters. In its portrayal of the details
of Frank's business strategies, it is more like Oliver Stone's Wall Street,
except with an occasional murder.
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 one. 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,
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
- 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. There are just too many undeveloped
characters who seem like total strangers. 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, and I really have no idea who those guys were. As
lengthy as it is, the film is too ambitious for its running time.
That's a minor flaw, as I see it, because the two things the film does
have time to do well are done brilliantly, and a longer running time would
reduce the film's commercial prospects. Although it is not without flaws,
this movie is definitely one you want to see. It's a great yarn, spun well,
performed well, dripping with atmosphere, mostly true, and not without greater cultural significance.
(Currently rated over 9 at IMDb!!!)
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. That is
basically what you will see in
this film clip.
There are two other completely meaningless bits of nudity not seen here.
- 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
- Denzel'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.