Running Time: 156 mins.
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (strong violence, coarse language, strong drug use)
American Gangster will probably go straight into the canon of outstanding gangster films.
It is not mythmaking like Coppola's Godfather trilogy. It is not operatic and rhetorical like the films of Martin Scorsese. Rather, it is a matter-of-fact recounting of the career of Frank Lucas from 1968 to 1975 and the work of a special anti-drugs squad led by Richie Roberts. It tells its story while vividly re-creating the period and using the New York locations effectively. At moments it is almost documentary-like. However, piece by piece, it builds up two portraits, two ways of life, two codes of ethics moving towards an action climax and a justice epilogue.
The screenplay was written by Steven Zaillian and other writers. Zaillian made a great impact with his ability to fashion a screenplay for Schindler's List and then for Gangs of New York (geared to Scorsese's style). Direction is by Ridley Scott, who always capitalizes on his talent for quick storytelling from his hundreds of commercials. For almost thirty years, Scott has been making popular entertainments but has made classics of science-fiction (Alien), futuristic fables (Blade Runner), feminism (Thelma and Louise), costume epics (Gladiator).
Frank Lucas, from North Carolina, had a deprived childhood and then, in New York became the chauffeur and collector for crime boss, Bumby Johnson. When Johnson died in 1968, Lucas took charge, drawing on his experience and creating a crime empire, an African American empire employing his family, which the Italians and the authorities could not readily believe or accept.
With Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the character has charm, has learnt urbane ways and has begun to move in New York society. But episodes in the film leave us in no doubt he could be ruthless and cruel. By going to market sources in South East Asia and bribing the military to bring the purest of heroin to the US, he undercut his rivals with quality drugs. He received some protection from the Mafia but was also pursued by corrupt police for their cut of the profits.
With Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the detective whose private life could be a shambles was, nevertheless, incorruptible and persevering with his squad and finally finding a way to bring Lucas down.
Much of the quite long film (over two and a half hours) is painstaking in its delineation of characters, the steps Lucas took to consolidate his work (including trips to Asia) as well as the careful work of Roberts. The tracing of the growth of imports from Asia, the addictions of many of the American forces and the trade on the streets is also filled in with some detail.
A gallery of top character actors fill out the supporting roles. These include Chiwitel Eijiofor as Huey Lucas, Ruby Dee as Mrs Lucas, Josh Brolin as a corrupt detective, Armand Assante as the Mafia protector, Ted Levine as the officer in charge, Joe Morton as Lucas's counselor.
Not as violent of verbally assaulting as Scorsese's films like Goodfellas or The Departed, but it does have its violent moments, but these are comparatively brief.
Universal Out Now
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.