According to gangster-cinema logic, a gang boss wallows in crime and murder largely because he feels obligated (often willingly so) to look after the people on his turf: to keep the streets safe, his family well-fed and his business thriving. The contradiction is, of course, that by doing so a gang boss keeps the motor running on a machine that corrupts and destroys the very people he professes to protect.
In “American Gangster,” that equation of irony is highlighted again and again: Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas carefully builds himself a glittering empire of wealth and prestige, while just outside the diner where he habitually takes breakfast (Lucas prides himself on being part of the people), addicts are shooting up, killing each other over his product, and eventually OD-ing inside ghetto apartments.
In “The Godfather,” mafia bosses had gotten together and agreed not to let drugs be sold on the streets or near children; the exception was Harlem since “they’re animals anyway, so let them burn in hell.” That line came out of typical 1950s racism. In “American Gangster,” set 20 years later in early 1970, Lucas rails against such slurs, but he has no scruples about letting his people burn, whether on the streets or in hell, resolutely turning a blind eye to the consequences of his business. And come Thanksgiving, he throws frozen turkeys to the outstretched hands of the crowd that have gathered to bask in his generous good will.
This is the real-life story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) who reigned over Harlem’s drug scene for about five years before getting nabbed by narcotics detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Director Ridley Scott traces Lucas’ career in a sketchy, reticent (there’s no voice-over narrative) kind of way, and this matches the sketchy, reticent persona of Lucas himself.
For 15 years he was the chauffeur and bodyguard of Harlem’s legendary crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, but the only incident from that time which appears in the film is Lucas throwing a bucket of gasoline on a thug unfortunate to fall out of favor, and tossing a match.
When Bumpy dies of a heart attack, Lucas is undemonstrative at the funeral, but he privately remarks to a friend that he will “go after everyone who owed money to Bumpy.” In the next scene he has taken that money plus his life savings and arranged to import heroin direct from the U.S. Army in Vietnam. This, apparently, was how Lucas did things: with minimum fuss and maximum effect.
Lucas is defined by two qualities: an unerring head for business, and a relentless love of money, but he keeps them under wraps behind his inconspicuousness.
Washington sinks his charm and charisma into what could have been a cast-iron poker face, speaking in short, terse sentences that come out like pellets from a BB gun. On occasion, Lucas tries for casual friendliness and pulls out what is apparently his standard line: “My maaaaaan!”
But you can feel the artifice and rigidity. This is precisely why Lucas — a black man working solo in the drug trade — manages to climb to the top rung in such a short time: His outward veneer as a government clerk (Lucas is always carrying a black briefcase) wins the trust of everyone from Mekong Delta opium lords to Harlem street dealers.
The film takes us through Lucas’ operation step by step: He flies in pure, undiluted heroin “straight from the source” in Southeast Asia, processes the stuff in housing projects scattered throughout the N.Y. boroughs and sells it in little envelopes labeled “Blue Magic.”
The whole thing is a nirvana of small-time capitalism: Lucas’ cousin coordinates the Asian transports; his brothers pick them up at the airport. The workers packaging the heroin are all young women working naked in the kitchen (“so no one can stash the merchandise!”) as children, husbands and boyfriends throng the premises eating lunch.
Lucas never tries to modernize or enlarge the business; he’s too shrewd to throw his weight around before consolidating what would soon become an incredible fortune. Once he deems it safe to do so, he quietly purchases a palatial suburban home for his mother, brings his entire family clan over from North Carolina, and marries Eva (Lymari Nadal), a former Miss Puerto Rico. All this, and yet Lucas remains a pillar of discretion, so much so that even his loved ones have trouble locating him in a crowded room or recognize his voice over the phone (“It’s me . . . Frank.” “Frank who?”). Only once does he allow himself to show some gangster cache by going to Madison Square Garden in a chinchilla coat (a gift from his wife). That turns out to be a mistake, marking the beginning of his demise.
Roberts is a neat contrast to Lucas: a hulking slob in Hawaiian shirts whose two modes of relaxation are swilling beer and tossing a football around with a high-school buddy who has grown into a small-time crook. Roberts, however, goes by his own rules: As long as his friends don’t break the law in his face, it’s OK. On the other hand, he’s that breed of cop who refuses to take bribes and winds up alienating himself from the entire force.
While Lucas’ persona becomes molded by his drive for wealth and success, Roberts’ motives are more complex. As he struggles through work, he’s also attending night school to qualify as a lawyer. He’s fighting a custody battle over his son with his embittered ex-wife (Carla Gugino) but has no qualms about sleeping with his lawyer (even after his wife finds out) and about 30 other women. It’s easy to see what makes Lucas tick, but Roberts is harder to fathom. Both men, however, share a common passion for getting their respective work done. It’s just that with Roberts, work is its own reward, and with Lucas, work is an investment that had better spawn huge returns.
At times, Scott goes overboard in drawing their polarity: On Thanksgiving Day, Lucas is carving the turkey with an electronic knife, surrounded by family in a splendid mansion, while Roberts fixes himself a sandwich on a paper plate in a small dirty kitchen. And when the show-down comes, the sequence is almost anticlimactic in its utter lack of stylized violence we’ve grown accustomed to, including the body count. But then, “I hate flashy” is Lucas’ recurring line, an American gangster who’s also a stickler for self-discipline.