'American Gangster': A Direct Hit

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

In "American Gangster," time doesn't fly, it explodes.

The thing is 2 1/2 hours long; it feels like 40 minutes.

Whether it's the next great American crime movie or simply this year's professional stunner will be determined over the next few months. For now, it's enough to say that the story of the rise and fall of an African American drug kingpin is relentlessly told by the English director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down"); it just keeps on coming.

Starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a beneath-the-radar Harlem heroin impresario who puts together an astonishing organization before anyone notices, and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the Jersey detective who tracks him, the movie has the aspirations of a crime-and-punishment epic, a superb feel for time and milieu and an almost subliminal feel for myth.

"Is this the end of Rico?" "I ain't so tough." "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." These iconic lines are from the tradition in which "American Gangster" hopes to find its way. "Either you're somebody or you ain't nobody" seems to be the line it dreams will live forever.

The movie begins by evoking the classic old gangster Bumpy Johnson (dead-eyed Clarence Williams III), the numbers king of Harlem who outlived Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano and by the mid-60s was the criminal Yoda of the rough terrain above 125th Street, a bitter old cynic who complained to his driver about the profligacy and the lack of dignity and self-discipline of today's generation of criminals. His driver, just up from North Carolina, was Frank Lucas, and he listened hard and well. When his turn came, he insisted that his organization's minions be low-key, steely-eyed, well-dressed, un-flamboyant. They may have carried .45s but they dressed Brooks Brothers. Frank himself could shoot a competitor in the head, then cross the street and eat breakfast, confident that his sedate coat and tie would shield him from the attention of police investigators who hassled guys with bling around their necks.

Frank had a gimmick. He had a cousin, a well-connected career NCO in Southeast Asia (the war haunts the movie, it should be noted), and via that connection was able to smuggle in pure Chinese-grown smack (Ric Young does a memorable job in brief scenes as an oleaginous Kuomintang generalissimo in the highlands of Thailand). His junk is better and cheaper than anything on the streets and soon enough, by the physics of the market, he controls the streets. The Mafia (repped by Armand Assante dressed in the fashion of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) has to come to him ! And who opposes him? Hardly the New York Police Department, portrayed as so totally corrupt that the cops are only too eager to keep the drugs flowing as a way to subsidize summer homes in Florida, which dovetails neatly with other period films like "Serpico" and "Prince of the City."

Only one man rises to the challenge. That is Crowe's Richie, complete with Popeye Doyle's scrubby wardrobe and a Jersey accent that sounds like it came from Hoboken out of Perth Amboy. Richie is famously honest, and in Newark he marks himself off from all cops for all time by the simple act of turning in a million bucks he recovered from the back of a mob Cadillac. Big mistake, Richie: No cop in the Newark of the early '60s would work with a guy they knew was tainted by the disease of honesty. So when Richie calls for backup, guess who shows up: nobody. Like Serpico, he goes through the doors alone.

After years of isolation, Richie finally gets a chance to jump to the Feds -- in an early iteration of the Drug Enforcement Administration -- and heads a task force to take down the Harlem heroin lord. But first he has to get a serious enemy out of the way: the New York City Police Department.

Scott, working from a brilliant script by Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List" among his many other A-list projects), plays the two stories off each other so adroitly that we don't notice that the two antagonists, though defined by the parallel cutting and equal screen time as well as the charisma of the stars, aren't even aware of each other until the movie's second half, and never eyeball each other until the last 20 minutes.

And yet that's not bad, that's good, that's even the heart of the movie's brilliance. Scott gets so much right that it's easy to ignore the singular brilliance of the movie, which is that it gets its star management right. By that I mean Scott and Zaillian are aware of (and dependent upon) the charisma of the stars as they build toward their fated collision. Yet they're also aware that, like so many a gangster movie before, we're secretly in awe of the nominal "bad guy" and that in any case, the rules of movie stardom far outweigh the rules of social morality, at least in the sepulcher of the theater. Thus, while we disapprove of Frank, we don't want to see him destroyed; we want to see him bond with Richie in a way that salvages his soul, destroys a true enemy and send us out on a high note. We want, within the world of chaos, greed and ambition that marks the gangster genre, a happy ending. This is what Scott and Zaillian and Washington and Crowe give us.

Washington is brilliant. He makes sense of a man who could move his mother into a mansion and love the joy on her face, and yet coldly place a Browning 9mm against a competitor's forehead and reply to the question "What are you going to do, Frank, shoot me in front of all these people?" by shooting him in front of all those people. Washington seems to have a secret mechanism by which he turns his face off; it goes from a vibrant, expressive projection of humanity and empathy to a stone-killer executioner's mask so fast it's scary. He makes you fear Frank.

Yet he also makes you love Frank. That's the key to the thing, the charisma of the man who triumphs over the system. And so identified with this theme is "American Gangster" that its other hero, Richie, is also defined as an outsider. The movie seems to be saying: When the inside is so corrupt, you must turn to outsiders.

Does it over-glamorize a man who, after all, sold people drugs for money and their souls, and lived high while they bottomed out in the gutter and were found in the thousands with needle tracks, scabs and hepatitis B in cold Harlem alleyways? In a word: yes.

But that is not its decision alone, it's also ours -- as a society, as a culture, as a civilization we're complicit in the promotion of deviance to heroism. That figure -- the dope dealer, the seller of the Sportin' Life with his powders and his escapes -- has moved from pariah to rock star over the years.

Wishing it weren't so isn't going to make it go away.

American Gangster (157 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, pervasive drug content, profanity, nudity and sexuality.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company