From Steve Zallian’s sharp and thoughtful script based on true events, the film follows two men: Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a heroin kingpin who applies modern business acumen in controlling his product from manufacturing to distribution; and Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) a moral-to-a-fault cop who leads a DEA investigation to unravel Lucas’ operation and bring the drug overlord to justice. While it may seem like the straight-laced Roberts might provide only a perfunctory role for dramatic conflict and as a character foil for Lucas, both stories are richly detailed and tie into the film’s larger themes.
What makes American Gangster an instant classic is that it crafts a complex matrix of crime, race, power, morals, ambition, duty, family, all in the context of American culture, not just of the late 60s and early 70s when the film is set but its relevance to the present day. Director Ridley Scott turns in one of his best films in an already distinguished career as he skillfully finds the darkness, the humor, and the massive scale of the storyline but he never forgets his characters. There’s an overwhelming trust of the audience’s ability to put the narrative together and not use flashbacks or heavy-handed exposition in exchange for the depth and thought the narrative provides.
Crowe turns in his standard solid performance but it’s Washington who has the more fascinating character and he plays Lucas with such frightening subtlety and cold-blooded ferocity that he easily has you wrapped around his finger. It’s not just the character’s brilliance and confidence, but rather his eerily familiar business sense. Frank sees his product as any other product but since he’s a black man living across 110th street (the film also features the best use of “Across 110th Street” since Across 110th Street) he is shut off from the “legitimate” business of white men so instead of selling toasters, he’s selling heroin. And even those who oppose the War on Drugs have no love for that drug. I’ve never heard of a “casual heroin user”. Frank is dealing in human misery and yet he is no sociopath or poor, deluded soul. Nor is Richie some brainless boy scout who cares only for protocol.
There are no easy answers to be found in American Gangster but it is a magnificently crafted and thoroughly entertaining flick that will not only get inside your head but send your blood racing. It is not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best films, period.