Pulling out the big guns
Ridley Scott paints a whole new picture of gang life in New York City
American Gangster tells of a bit of history we aren’t taught in school. Hollywood often glorifies the Italian mafia in New York City but pays little attention to the fact that, yes, other groups have been there, done that. For this fact alone, the film is an important one. Add the direction of Ridley Scott and acting from Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and you’ve got the makings of an epic.
American Gangster is epic indeed. The characters—Frank Lucas (Washington) in particular—are larger than life. The scenes, set in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, are vibrant and full of an energy all their own. And the story, well, the story is huge. That’s part of why it takes so long to tell (the running time clocks in at 2 hours 37 minutes).
Frank Lucas is a drug dealer of the worst kind. He sells pure stuff—heroin—and cheap. So pure and so cheap, in fact, that he single-handedly takes over the smack trade in New York City. Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Crowe), an honest cop, heads up a drug-enforcement team. Its goal: To take down the big dealers in a city filled with them—and corrupt officers.
One interesting thing here is that Frank and Richie don’t cross paths until almost two hours into the film. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian has even said he wrote two different scripts, one from the point of view of Frank Lucas and the other from Richie Roberts’ side, and then fused them—beautifully.
Not that the film is beautiful. It’s not. It’s brutal, and gritty at times—there are a number of shooting and shooting-up scenes. But it all adds to the ambiance, which is sometimes less than glamorous. When Frank is shown killing a man in cold blood, it reminds you that behind his calm façade (he runs his business more like an Italian mafia family than a Blood or Crips gang), there is a gangster.
American Gangster weaves a complicated web with many characters and plotlines to follow, and it takes some time to figure out exactly what is going on. But in the end, it all adds up to the big payoff.