In 1980, I went to work in Washington, D.C. I spent a lot of my time working with people in East Coast law enforcement. They were still talking about Frank Lucas, one of the most significant crime bosses of the last half-century, a major crime figure in New York during the 1960s and 1970s.
“American Gangster,” director Ridley Scott’s new film, is a “based-on-truth” motion picture about Lucas. In the lead, Denzel Washington is brilliant. His Frank Lucas is confident, self-assured, ruthless yet possessing an internal compass that leads him to chide his brothers and workers to avoid bad personal behavior.
There is little introspection or brooding in Washington’s interpretation. It’s clear that Elsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, a mentor in organized crime as played by Clarence Williams III, was the most influential person in the life of Frank Lucas. That impact is conveyed subtly and without histrionics.
Lymari Nidal as Eva, Lucas’ Puerto Rican love interest, is a jewel. The supporting cast, including Ruby Dee as Mama Lucas, is uniformly well-cast and believable. Deserving a special mention is Ric Young in a cameo as Lucas’ Chinese connection. He is given a few of the best narrative lines, including an admonition that in matters of crime it is usually best to quit while you’re ahead.
Russell Crowe is superb in the other lead. He portrays Richie Roberts, an honest cop whose investigations eventually shatter one of the largest heroin transportation schemes in history. Carla Gugino is Laurie, his estranged wife. Her bluntness ultimately forces Roberts to understand the implications of his casual personal immorality, in contrast to his comprehensive professional integrity.
The filming, editing, music and just about everything else in the movie is magnificent. The straight narrative style, with deft use of film clips and news reports of the Vietnam War era, is part of the story’s power. This film simply begins at a certain date in history and moves straight through to the end. It is a “slice of life” in which every minute seems authentic.
There is some sketching of past events, and a final jump in time to reveal Lucas’ ultimate fate. It’s a bit like another great recent Crowe film, “3:10 to Yuma.”
This is Washington’s best starring role since “Man on Fire,” a story with a very different kind of lead character than this one. Crowe inhabits his character entirely, as he did in Scott’s stirring “Gladiator.”
In the end, the lead characters do the right thing, in some cases after they have no other choice. Scott insists on showing the difficult moral nuances that present themselves in real life. Yet, at the core this is a moral and even righteous film.
In the end, everything in life is about right and wrong, good vs. evil, but decisions about those things come to us in shades of gray. A film that depicts that is uncharacteristic of Hollywood, but all the tricks of the modern cinematic trade are employed to good and most welcome effect in this one.
The movie is 157 minutes long, and is rated R for harsh language, realistic depictions of murder and brutality, and female nudity in drug manufacturing scenes. If you can handle all of that, don’t miss “American Gangster.”