Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe turn in powerhouse performances in the searing Ridley Scott-directed crime drama, American Gangster.
Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, American Gangster tells the true story of Frank Lucas, small-time hustler, a minor player in the Harlem underworld and the driver and body guard for Harlem crime boss Bumpy Johnson. American Gangster depicts Lucas’s meteoric rise to become one of the most powerful figures in the New York City underworld.
The film’s narrative is divided into three parts that gradually weave together the stories of Lucas and New Jersey Police Detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe.
The first act begins with the death of Lucas’ boss and mentor, Johnson. The film’s narrative follows Lucas as he moves to fill the vacuum left by Johnson’s sudden death by assassinating some competitors and forcing others out of business by eliminating the middlemen and shipping cocaine and heroin to the United Stated directly from Vietnam.
The focus shifts back and forth between Lucas and Roberts, seemingly the only honest cop on a corrupt police force. Roberts is something of a pariah in his precinct because he turned in almost a million dollars in drug money. His home life is no better, as his wife is in the process of divorcing him and moving to Las Vegas with their son.
The second act shows Lucas consolidating his power and Roberts beginning his investigation after his police partner dies from an overdose of Lucas’s ultra-pure cocaine, known on the streets as “Blue Magic.”
The film’s tangled plot threads finally come together in the third act as Roberts and his hand-picked team of investigators tighten the noose around Lucas and his operation, which by now involves members of his immediate and extended family.
Scott has chosen to light Crowe and Washington in stark tones of light and shadow. As Lucas becomes more and more powerful, he is frequently shot in deep shadows or is seen only at night. If he is seen during the daytime, it is often only as a silhouette.
Likewise, Roberts is often seen only during the day. If he is seen at night, it is in bright light. The two motifs of the film, light and dark converge when Lucas and Roberts finally meet in court and confront each other for the first time.
Both Washington and Crowe give strong performances. Washington, however, is particularly captivating as Lucas. He gives his character all the ruthlessness of a major drug lord, yet his devotion to his family and his desire to supply his customers with a better and cheaper product give him the veneer of a caring family man and a businessman concerned for his customers. These factors, combined with the fact that Lucas became a witness for the prosecution and gave testimony that led to the conviction of three quarters of the New York Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as a large number of New York gang leaders, makes Lucas a strangely admirable figure.
American Gangster is a searing, gritty and brilliant crime drama. This is easily one of the best gangster movies to be made in the past 25 years.