American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe takes a hard unsparing look at narcotics trade in 1970's New York. This movie, based on the life of Frank Lucas, the only black male of his time to successfully compete and take over the drug trade in New York, chronicles his rise to power.
Russell Crowe in his role as Detective Richie Roberts, portrays the efforts of the detective who ultimately toppled Frank Lucas' empire.
Both men are individualists who are lone wolves in their respective "professions." Frank Lucas has been a long time driver/enforcer for Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. Johnson was known as the Harlem Godfather, being one of the few men to take on Dutch Schultz. Facing a fourth term in prison, Bumpy dies of a heart attack, leaving a power vacuum that Lucas is quick to fill.
Denzel Washington gives a cold almost one note performance as Frank Lucas. In the opening shots, Bumpy sets a man on fire and they stand there watching as he screams in agony. Frank Lucas coolly shoots the man with no change of expression. He is a cold, ruthless and totally calculating man, determined to become top dog in a vicious game.
When he discovers that most of the heroin coming into New York has been stepped on ( cut with adulterants) many times, he decides to go straight to the source for China White heroin. The source is in Vietnam, where a distant cousin is serving in the army. He hooks up with him for the supply and begins his meteoric rise to power.
Franks mother, richly portrayed by Ruby Dee, is summoned to New York with the family. Frank has bought her a beautiful mansion set on rolling acres of green. She is deeply touched and surprised that Frank has decorated her bedroom with things from their shared past in the South. The only flaw in this I see, is that his mother never questions him about how he got his money.
Frank also marries Eva, a lovely Puerto Rican woman. On their wedding night, Frank angered by an incident, takes her ermine coat and burns it in the fireplace in front of her.
Very quickly, Frank Lucas' operation rises to the top of the NY narcotics scene. Using sound business principles, Lucas oversees every area of his operation, from the purchase of the uncut product overseas, to the packaging warehouses. No detail was overlooked. The drugs were cut and packaged by women who were not allowed to wear clothing. This of course, minimized the risk of theft, as there was no place to hide the drugs. This was a man in total control of his environment and businesses. Until he crosses paths with N.Y. detective Richie Roberts.
Russell Crowe gives us a fine performance as a deeply troubled man. His marriage is ending, his fellow officers despise him, and his life seems to be spiraling out of control. Following a tip from an informant, Roberts and his partner go after a well known bookie. They don't find him, but they do find over $900, 000 in the trunk of his car. After a heated argument with his partner, who wants to keep the money and say nothing, Crowe wins out and turns it in, much to the anger and disdain of his fellow officers.
When Roberts partner od's on drugs, he is approached by a federal agency to start his own narcotics unit. Part of the focus will be on exposing corruption within N.Y. city's own cops. He begins by focussing on a certain popular drug known as Blue Magic. The trail leads him to Detective Trupo, a vicious corrupt cop, who threatens him by warning him not to poach on his territory again, and stay out of New York. Trupo is taking $10, 000 a month from Lucas and wants Roberts out of the way.
As fate would have it, Roberts attends a prize fight featuring Muhammed Ali. He spots Frank Lucas in the front row, shaking hands with prominent entertainers and boxers, including Joe Lewis. He runs his license plates, and a big picture starts to form.
But he doesn't have proof of his convictions that Frank Lucas is a major dealer. Until he gets a major break. While out on the streets, he witnesses one of Frank's men killing someone. They arrest him and offer him a deal: Wear a wire and walk.
The facts lead him overseas to Frank's main suppliers in Vietnam. He now knows the drugs are being shipped in the coffins of those who have died in battle. In a showdown with the military, who don't want their reputations ragged more than they already were, Roberts wins and finds the drugs.
The arrest and pending trial would have been almost anticlimactic, except for one startling thing. Lucas turns states evidence in exchange for a shorter sentence. That evidence helped uncover and convict the 75% of N.Y. city's narcotic units corrupt cops.
That corruption ran that high is an eye opening statement about how the narcotics trade influences others. If you want a gritty tough and realistic look at the life of Frank Lucas, this is the movie to watch. Ridley Scott did a fine job in directing this film. The cast, script and cinematography combine flawlessly in bringing us an authentic look at 1970's Harlem and the New York drug trade.