Morality tales have never been Ridley Scott’s speciality, so it’s not shocking that the title character of his new film, American Gangster, is a drug dealer who’s as suave as he is ruthless. But the director has given equal time, if not equal billing, to the urbane gangster’s nemesis, a rumpled and incorruptible cop. Heroin kingpin Frank Lucas is played by Denzel Washington and New Jersey drug-squad detective Richie Roberts by Russell Crowe, guaranteeing dramatic sparks when the two men finally meet, in a sequence that recalls Heat’s De Niro/Pacino parley. The actors are equally matched, but Roberts ultimately bests Lucas, which gives this sharp, stylish entertainment a righteous payoff that’s rare in Scott’s work.
The movie opens with an incident that’s not in its source, Mark Jacobson’s 2000 New York magazine article, “The Return of Superfly”: Lucas presides over a gruesome execution. Scripter Steven Zaillian has neatened and stretched the drug lord’s saga, but the tale of his defining triumph is all true: After the death of mentor Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), Lucas realizes that Southeast Asia is a prime source for heroin, and that the then-raging Vietnam War is a great cover for a smuggling operation. He heads for the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Burma, and Laos, where poppies are profuse and the borders leak pure smack. Soon, Lucas is bypassing the Mafia, marketing a product that’s both purer and cheaper than the competition’s. He dubs it “Blue Magic.”
An instant millionaire, Lucas brings his brothers (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common) north from the Carolinas and installs himself, his mother (Ruby Dee), and his beauty-queen wife (Lymari Nadal) in a New Jersey mansion. That ultimately proves a mistake. The NYPD anti-narcotics operation—personified by Det. Trupo (a malignant Josh Brolin)—is hopelessly corrupt. So the DEA makes its local alliance with New Jersey cops led by Roberts, disdained by his colleagues as a “fucking boy scout.” A night-school law student entangled in a sour divorce, Roberts seems unsophisticated, and he’s definitely overextended. Yet he’s the right choice, not only for his intense dedication, but also because he’s unconfined by long-standing assumptions. While the DEA can’t believe that a novice could be circumventing the Mafia, Roberts becomes convinced that Lucas has devised a new channel for heroin smuggling. (Is this characterization accurate? Hard to say: Roberts isn’t mentioned in Jacobson’s article.)
The real Lucas was something of a movie star and knew it; Jacobson reports that Lucas acted in a 1970 blaxploitation flick, The Ripoff. It was never completed, but so many other drug-dealer chronicles have been made that American Gangster risks playing like a footnote to them. The film includes a Nixon clip that’s also in Mr. Untouchable, the new documentary about Lucas rival Nicky Barnes (a bit part here for Cuba Gooding Jr.). It also overlaps Sidney Lumet’s 1981 film Prince of the City, the real-life account of a ’70 New York narcotics cop who revealed his cohorts’ (and his own) corruption. Yet American Gangster has its own story to tell and wisely doesn’t emphasize its period-piece qualities. The 1975 fall of Saigon features heavily but so does music by Public Enemy and Hank Shocklee.
The movie inevitably glamorizes Lucas, who’s portrayed as a smooth (and sober) mastermind with Washington’s easy smile and a handy catch phrase: “my man.” Yet American Gangster is Scott in docudrama mode, closer to Black Hawk Down than such contrived historical extravaganzas as Gladiator. Rather than try to compete with The Departed, Scott keeps his cool, emphasizing clean narrative over stylistic glitter. Big yet impeccably controlled, American Gangster doesn’t reformulate the drug-baron picture, but it does give it a shot of new, and real, life.