Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
When I was a young troublemaker, I loved gangster movies. Our gang of neighborhood roughnecks spent entire afternoons imitating Jimmy Cagney (“You durdee raaaat”) or Edward G Robinson (“You’re gonna get it, seeee!”). I still get goose bumps every time Duke Mantee (played by Humphrey Bogart), slithers onto the screen for the first time in “Petrified Forest,” or when James Caan (Sonny Corleone) drives up to the toll booth in “The Godfather.” Too bad they didn’t have Speed Pass back then, Sonny.
Imagine my joy when I heard two of my favorite actors, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, would be facing off in “American Gangster.” They’re not as incendiary as Cagney and Bogart (who, prior to “Maltese Falcon” always lost his confrontations with the Yankee Doodle Dandy), but Washington’s rare wrong side of the law portrayal of Harlem heroin honcho Frank Lucas is a bigger hit than the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Frank who?
The film would lead you to believe that Frank Lucas was so powerful the Mafia feared him. Get serious. There’s never been a non-Italian hotshot the Mafia couldn’t deal with by giving them a permanent dose of lead poisoning. Just ask Bugsy Siegel, Dion O’Bannion, Hymie Weiss or Dutch Schultz. That’s right you can’t – they didn’t live long enough to apply for AARP. The Harlem drug trade was fronted by black gangsters, but few operated for long without reaching out for the protective arm of La Cosa Nostra. (Well aware of this, Lucas forms a necessary partnership with Dominic Cattano, conveyed by the suave but cold-blooded Armand Assante.)
One of the most powerful figures in Harlem in the 60s and 70s was Nicky Barnes, portrayed in the film as a strutting buffoon in a series of career-boosting cameos by Cuba Gooding, Jr. Another powerful black crime boss (perhaps the most celebrated in New York) was Lucas’s predecessor and mentor, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, (interpreted as a professorial hoodlum by Clarence Williams III). In his final years, Bumpy was apparently so agitated by corporation’s lack of concern for the consumer he should have been called Jumpy Johnson. The writers do allow that Lucas was Bumpy’s chauffer for fifteen years before the King of Harlem suffered a fatal heart attack in 1968. Viewing himself as heir apparent to the snow king, Lucas built a highly profitable business by shipping pure heroin directly from Bangkok in coffins that were supposed to be carrying the remains of soldiers killed in Vietnam. He sold his junk at K-Mart prices, and unlike Barnes, kept a low key common man profile. Apparently the only time Lucas pimped his public persona was for the benefit of his girlfriend and the audience at the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden in 1971. The flashy garb got him noticed by curious detectives, and Lucas went from ghost to most wanted in a massive drug probe. Lucas had apparently forgotten his own credo: “The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.”
“American Gangster”’s plot centers around the rise and fall of Lucas’ heroin empire. Lucas neutralizes Barnes’ overzealousness by democratically dividing their turf, is protected from upstarts by Cattano’s cavalry, and bribes his way to an uneasy truce with blatantly crooked Detective Turbo (lavishly evil Josh Brolin). Lucas brings in his family, the only people he can truly trust -- including his five brothers and countless cousins -- to run his distribution centers. His church-going mother (righteous Ruby Dee) remains the steady moral center in his life (providing what little morality he has). Like all criminals he has a soft spot for his mama, he promptly installs in his million dollar mansion alongside his former beauty queen wife (elegant Lymari Nadal). Lucas’ delicate balancing act begins to unravel when one of his cousins tries to end a lover’s quarrel by introducing several bullets into his girlfriend’s epidermis. Detective Ritchie Roberts (Crowe, successfully battling through his lack of character development) cuts a deal with Lucas’ cousin to wear a wire, spelling trouble for the unsuspecting arm candy king.
Lucas’ hatred of blackmailing Turbo has festered since the crooked cop and his posturing posse first pulled his limo over on his wedding day. Lucas endured Turbo’s first gusty shakedown for his bride’s sake, but let the foul flatfoot know he wasn’t going to be his wussy cash machine by turning Turbo’s prized Mustang into shrapnel. Turbo pulls Lucas over a second time, this time in the company of Huey, who nervously tells his brother there’s a shipment of heroin in the trunk and they’re not going to get off by buying a few chances to the policeman’s ball. Turbo flexes his muscles, pressing his advantage, but Lucas displays a cool under fire that promises a bullet-riddled death if Turbo even considers harming him or his family.
Turbo (spotting the drugs):What are we gonna do about this?
Frank Lucas:We close it up, throw it back in the trunk. Everybody goes home for some apple pie and cider.
Turbo: I got a better idea. Or would you rather I throw you and your brother in the f****ing river?
Lucas: Or would you rather your house blows up next time?
Turbo (confiscating the drugs): I loved that car.
Lucas: I know.
Denzel Washington chalks up another sterling performance as Frank Lucas. In reality, the real Frank Lucas was an illiterate, vicious thug without Washington’s measured mannerisms or photogenic profile. Washington’s love affair with the camera turns Lucas into a romantic figure, an innovator, kingpin and a family man, a person teenagers are bound to envy and admire. (So much so that Lucas’ nephew, a highly touted baseball prospect, blows off a chance to audition for the Yankees because he likes Lucas’ lifestyle. “I want what you got Uncle Frank. I want to be you.”) Through a series of flashbacks and a startling confrontation between Lucas and local drug dealer “Tango” (bullying Idris Elba), director Ridley Scott reminds the audience that beneath his lord of the street guise, Frank Lucas is just another dispassionate killer. When Tango and Lucas meet shortly after Bumpy Johnson’s death with the Harlem drug trade still up for grabs, Tango demands a 20% cut from Lucas, who boldly refuses and walks away, exposing his back to Tango without fear of finding a round of .45 shells in it. When Lucas becomes undisputed monarch of the marching dust trade and the balance of reverence is reversed, he confronts Tango on a crowded street corner demanding his 20% share of Tango’s profits. With Lucas’ brothers and cousins looking on, Tango laughs at Lucas, who draws his gun, pressing it against Tango’s skull. “What you gonna do? You gonna shoot me in front of everybody, Frank?” Without hesitation, Lucas presses the trigger. Tango’s skull cracks like a holiday walnut and his body hits the pavement before the surprise registers on his face and he can say “Do Over!” The act is sudden, bold, and brutal, exposing the crouching beast within Lucas, and serves as a reminder that a thug is still a thug, even if he dresses and talks like a prince. When Frank Lucas calls someone “My man,” they clearly aren’t, and should think about purchasing body armor.
The action grounds to a halt whenever Crowe’s saint in the city character Ritchie Roberts is the center of attention. His early scenes are a set up for his twenty minute confrontation with the charismatic Lucas, and Roberts’ story arc doesn’t take off until midway trough the film when he forms the Essex County Narcotics Squad and begins building his case against the coke connoisseur. Prior to that you have to sit through Roberts babysitting his junkie partner, watch as he sweats out the obvious outcome of his bar exams, squirm as he dickers with his wife over visitation rights, and witness his discomfort whenever he’s asked why he turned in $987,000 in cash when any other cop would have bought themselves a boat. Compared to Lucas’ adventure-a-minute lifestyle, Roberts’ story crawls, qualifying as bathroom break material.
With Washington and Crowe, “American Gangster” sports the most star-studded pairing since “Heat,” the 1995 action thriller that starred Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Like “Heat,” the principals in “American Gangster” don’t meet until the action is a fait accompli and one character clearly has an advantage over another. In their first scene together, the two actors (who were paid more than the GNP for some countries) don’t even exchange any dialogue – just knowing glances. In the next few scenes Washington and Crowe are simply playing mop up; the story is essentially over. As a result, their interaction is appreciated but flat.
Washington and Crowe starred together before in 1995’s “Virtuosity.” If you remember the movie, you still may not recollect that a steely-eyed Crowe played a virtual villain, a holographic homicidal horror. The movie didn’t have much virtue, due to a script as stiff as Crowe’s robotic posture. Both actors have done better work than they present here (especially Crowe). Crowe proved he could handle the daunting task of playing a feckless underdog in 2005’s “Cinderella Man,” the not exactly factual story of boxer Jim Braddock, and he commanded the screen as ruthless bank robbing bushwhacker Ben Wade in the credible remake of “5:10 to Yuma.” The previously squeaky clean Washington showed his versatility as a drugging, slugging, thugging street smart detective in “Training Day,” and still played his typically wholesome roles in “Remember the Titans” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” At times the two actors are forced to move “American Gangster” forward with sheer will and talent (it clocks in at 2:40), but unlike their previous pairing they get plenty of help from the supporting cast.
The plot is predictable as a junkie who’s just hit Lotto, and Roberts’ moral high ground stance is at times overbearingly self-serving (he and the real Frank Lucas served as advisors to the writers). But it’s the acting that keeps “American Gangster” from becoming American gagster. Ted Levine owes his presence in the film to Denzel Washington, who’s a fan of “Monk,” and suggested the actor who plays Detective Leland Stottlemeyer in the series could easily handle the role of gritty Detective Lou Toback, even without his trademark walrus moustache. There’s something to be said for typecasting. Levine is so convincing, if he walked up to me on the street I’d automatically assume the position. Speaking of credible, Josh Brolin, who gets better with every performance, gives a career-maker as corrupt Detective Turbo. Every time he slimmed across the screen I was hoping Lucas or Roberts would empty an entire clip into him. When you hate a villain that much, you know he’s doing an excellent job. Brolin recently hit an acting excellence trifecta. He was a flesh seeking villain in “Planet Terror,” outperforms Washington in “American Gangster” (and as I said, Washington is first rate), and was Oscar worthy in “No Country For Old Men,” as a trailer park vet who stumbles upon a fortune in drug money, ensuring his future will be filled with misfortune.
Chitwetel Ejiofor, the busiest (and best) black actor next to Washington, doesn’t have a lot to do in the role of Lucas’ brother Huey other than act like a rube, but the exposure should help him land a big payday in the States. The ubiquitous John Hawkes (Sol Starr in “Deadwood”), plays loose but reliable Detective Freddie Spearman in Serpico fashion, while Ruben Santiago’s “Doc” is his opposite number, a loyal soldier to his boss, Lucas. Cuba Gooding’s appearances as Nicky Barnes are brief, but he lights up the screen with bravado. As mob boss Dominic Cattano, Armand Assante smolders with old school Mafia muscle. Other notable appearances are made by Clarence Williams, who assays Bumpy Johnson as if he’s playing a gangsterized version of Yoda (and yet it works wonderfully); and gravel-throated Jon Polito as Rossi, Lucas’ Italian connection to the Mafia. (Nice to see Polito make it through a film without getting maimed or killed in an undignified manner.) Ritchie Coster stands out as Roberts’ high school buddy Joey Sadano, a made man whose relationship with Roberts could cost him his job and likely his life. Coster played emotionally detached serial killer Mark Bruner on “Law and Order” in a performance that had as much sinister zeal as Anthony Hopkins’ iconic Hannibal Lector. His lupine features make him ideal for playing psychopaths, so it’s energizing to see him play a character that’s almost human.
The ladies get short shrift, but when they’re on the screen, they prove to have as much metal as the men. There’s no way Ruby Dee deserved an Oscar for what amounts to five minutes of work, but whenever she makes an appearance as Lucas’ mother, she’s riveting. When she confronts Lucas about his “business,” her final word to her son is like a shiv to the heart:
Mother: I’ve never asked you where all this stuff (in the house) came from because I didn’t want to hear you lie to me.
Lucas: I understand, Mama. I don’t want you to worry about it. Now come on, I have to go.
(Mother slaps him).
Mother: Don’t lie to me! Don’t do that. Do you want to make things so bad for your family that they’ll leave you? Because they will.
Lucas: No, Mama. I understand.
Mother (pointing at Eva): She will leave you. I WILL LEAVE YOU!
Carla Gugino plays Roberts’ tough spouse with fed-up believability, and although Lymari Nadal (Eva) is mostly window dressing, she’s one pretty window and is downright adorable when her relationship with Lucas is still in the flirty stages.
The film has a killer soundtrack that includes “I’ll Take You There,” by the Staple Singers, Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin,’” and Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street,” (effectively used during scenes of smuggling and money laundering).
“American Gangster” expanded its territory when it was released on DVD and HD DVD in February. The 2-disc DVD release includes unseen footage and an extended finale. A special edition 3-disc version includes music videos, documentaries and a 32-page booklet.
Frank Lucas somehow managed to dodge a case of lead poisoning (it’s easier to do when you’re in jail), and has succeeded in accomplishing the rare feat of trafficing in drugs and death and living to a very ripe old age.. “American Gangster” is an action-filled time capsule of a period in Harlem’s history when Lucas and his perfect “Blue Magic” powder ruled the night. Enjoy the trip.