American Gangster (2007)
For most people when they think about gangsters they go to the Italians. This has been a long standing and unfair stereotype fostered for decades by film and television. Let’s face it; just about every culture has had their share of professional criminals. Such criminal organizations typically arise in ethic groups that are still struggling for mainstream acceptance in the wider community. Back in the seventies here in New York City an African-American rose out of poverty to become one of he richest, most powerful and deadly drug lords in American history. His name was Frank Lucas and he is the focus of the latest film by Ridley Scott, ‘American Gangster’. In many ways his life is a twisted and dark side of the American Dream. He rose from very poor origins in South Carolina and through hard work and dedication, albeit in drug dealing, became a success story in his dubious field gathering a fortune in excess of $150 million dollars. He employed such standard business practices as eliminating the middle man, often in a very literal sense, novel import techniques and providing the ‘customers’ a more potent product at a lower cost. The shame of this man’s life is with such business acumen he could have run a major corporation with equal success. As with most biographical flicks this one takes some liberties with the real story. Some of the major players in tracking down Lucas are completely left out while the parts played by others are enhanced. It is understandable that this was done for dramatic effect but as frequently is the case the true historical account would still make for a gripping film.
As is the case with many very creative people Ridley Scott has had an uneven career as a director. He came to the directorial ‘A’ list with the groundbreaking film ‘Alien’. He followed this up with the somewhat controversial cult classics ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Thelma & Louise’. After that he had his share of misses with flicks such as ‘G.I. Jane’ and ‘Hannibal’ punctuated by hits including ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Black Hawk Down’. The reason for such a roller coaster ride with Scott is he is willing to take a risk for see his creative idea through. The one thing all of his hits share in common is the development of the characters as realistic human beings. Going on a taut script by Steven Zaillian who has penned some incredible films like ‘Schindler's List’ and ‘Gangs of New York’, Scott is able to bring the audience deep into the lives of this charismatic drug lord. Zaillian is a character rather than situational oriented writer and this project offered him another chance to shine in his profession. It is difficult to keep the audience interested for over two and a half (almost three for the extended cut) but Zaillian’s story never falters. Combined with a straight from the hip direction by Scott and brilliant performances by two of the very best actors around and you have a film that works on almost every level.
Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) is a well known drug kingpin in Harlem. He is not a man to mess with; brutal and fatal to anyone that opposes or betrays him. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is untenably Bumpy’s driver but also acts as his enforcer and main lieutenant. In the opening scene a man who crossed Bumpy is seen standing in front of a Hispanic man, beaten to a pulp, tied up and on his knees. Another man pours gasoline over him and Lucas calmly lights his cigar throwing the match igniting the screaming man. Both Lucas and Bumpy look on business as usual. Bumpy had taken Lucas under his wing giving him not only training in the day to day business but also Yoda like philosophical expansions on life and living. When Bumpy dies of a heart attack there is an immediate power play to fill the vacancy. Lucas quickly moves in to take over Bumpy’s old territory and expand it greatly. For Lucas the others in the trade are way too affected and showy. He is a quiet, reflective man that says little but means what he says. I have heard a saying that you rarely have to worry about a man ranting at the top of his lungs that he will kill you; worry about the man that says it in a calm whisper. The latter is Lucas, the epitome of ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’. Realizing that he has to do better than Bumpy to hold on to the old and expand with the new Lucas makes a bold move. He decides to cut out the middlemen in the trafficking operations. He goes directly to the Asian sources and buys pure heroin from the now famous Golden Triangle. After an initial trail run is wildly successful Lucas comes up with such a different means of importing the drug that no one would think to look. He had tons of drugs transported in the coffins of soldiers who died in Viet Nam. This gave him the advantage over any other dealer. Soon the addicts where clamoring for Lucas’ ‘Blue Magic’ brand of heroin.
Such notoriety does not come without two things, a rival drug lord and a police detective intent on bringing him down. In this story the rival criminal is Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) who buys up a supply of ‘Blue Magic’, heavily dilutes it and sells it with his own brand. Even in the world of drug dealers there is brand recognition with the consumers. While Lucas is settling in to his new lifestyle by moving his family from the South to New Jersey and marrying a Latina beauty queen, Eva (Lymari Nadal). Over in Newark, New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and his partner discover $1 million in a car. Richie turns it in resulting in much disfavor among the mostly corrupt members of his precinct. Some of the offices are distributing drugs originating with Lucas. Largely because of his honesty Richie is approached by Captain Lou Toback (Ted Levine) who puts him in charge of a new taskforce to stop drug trafficking in New Jersey.
Scott does a great job of directing this film but it falls a little short of being among his best works. Normally he strikes a better balance between character development and action. In this film there are times when that the same character work is over done and bogs down the flow of the film. The scenes with Ritchie’s custody case with his wife Laurie (Carla Gugino) just seems to drag on. Part of this is the script truly focuses on Lucas. The remarkable cast goes a long way to hold the audience’s interest during this long film and even longer extended cut. Washington gives his usual amazing performance. He plays Lucas as a man of few words that can order the murder of a rival like another man might order a sandwich. His performance successfully treads the fine line between family man and cold blooded killer like few before have ever managed. Washington can appear calm and at ease yet the audience just knows from the way he holds himself that this man can explode without notice. In a counterpoint role Crowe is a man beset with personal problems. He is an honest cop yet he struggles while his prey is living life large.
Universal studio once again shows respect for the DVD collectors out there with this release. There are three variations for you to choose from. There is a two disc special edition, a three disc collector’s edition and a HD-DVD edition. The Two disc version was the one sent for preview here. Rather than make you buy two separate releases to get the theatrical and extended edition both cuts of the film are on all three sets. The extended cut features 18 additional minutes. There are plenty of extras to enjoy. In the below list the first two discs pertain to all but the three disc set. This is an exciting and engrossing film that is a must to see.
Disc 1: AMERICAN GANSTER: Unrated Extended
Disc 2: Bonus Disc
Disc 3: Bonus Disc