US, 2007, 156 minutes, Colour.
Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, Clarence Williams, Joe Morton.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
American Gangster will probably go straight into the canon of outstanding gangster films.
It is not mythmaking like Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. It is not operatic and rhetorical like the films of Martin Scorsese. Rather, it is a matter-of-fact recounting of the career of Frank Lucas from 1968 to 1975 and the work of a special anti-drugs squad led by Richie Roberts. It tells its story while vividly re-creating the period and using the New York locations effectively. At moments it is almost documentary-like. However, piece by piece, it builds up two portraits, two ways of life, two codes of ethics moving towards an action climax and a justice epilogue.
The screenplay was written by Steven Zaillian and other writers. Zaillian made a great impact with his ability to fashion a screenplay for Schindler’s List and then for Gangs of New York (geared to Scorsese’s style). Direction is by Ridley Scott, who always capitalizes on his talent for quick storytelling from his hundreds of commercials. For almost thirty years, Scott has been making popular entertainments but has made classics of science-fiction (Alien), futuristic fables (Blade Runner), feminism (Thelma and Louise), costume epics (Gladiator).
Frank Lucas, from North Carolina, had a deprived childhood and then, in New York became the chauffeur and collector for crime boss, Bumby Johnson. When Johnson died in 1968, Lucas took charge, drawing on his experience and creating a crime empire, an African American empire employing his family, which the Italians and the authorities could not readily believe or accept.
With Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the character has charm, has learnt urbane ways and has begun to move in New York society. But episodes in the film leave us in no doubt he could be ruthless and cruel. By going to market sources in South East Asia and bribing the military to bring the purest of heroin to the US, he undercut his rivals with quality drugs. He received some protection from the Mafia but was also pursued by corrupt police for their cut of the profits.
With Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the detective whose private life could be a shambles was, nevertheless, incorruptible and persevering with his squad and finally finding a way to bring Lucas down.
Much of the quite long film (over two and a half hours) is painstaking in its delineation of characters, the steps Lucas took to consolidate his work (including trips to Asia) as well as the careful work of Roberts. The tracing of the growth of imports from Asia, the addictions of many of the American forces and the trade on the streets is also filled in with some detail.
A gallery of top character actors fill out the supporting roles. These include Chiwitel Eijiofor as Huey Lucas, Ruby Dee as Mrs Lucas, Josh Brolin as a corrupt detective, Armand Assante as the Mafia protector, Ted Levine as the officer in charge, Joe Morton as Lucas’s counselor.
Not as violent of verbally assaulting as Scorsese’s films like Goodfellas or The Departed, but it does have its moments though they are comparatively brief.
1.The praise for the film? American gangster tradition? Classics?
2.A piece of Americana, the enterprise of Frank Lucas, his success, management of money, fulfilling the American business dream? The re-creation of period? The failings of the American character? Integrity and crime?
3.The work of Ridley Scott? His films? His cast?
4.The re-creation of the period: 1968-75, change in American society, the world of McDonald’s? and supermarkets? The war in Vietnam, the images on television? The work of the Mafia? The crime bosses in Harlem? Frank Lucas as driver? Learning on the streets? The buildings, society? Asia and the war? The hangars and the airports? The musical score? The songs?
5.The title, the comment on Frank Lucas? Not Italian, nor Russian Mafia?
6.The structure of the film: the introduction to Frank, the introduction to Richie Roberts? Each character, his world, his context, his code of behaviour? Action? Aims? Relationships, strong or failed? The law, justice? Quests? The intercutting of the two stories? The final meeting? The significance of the epilogue? Richie confronting Frank and Frank collaborating?
7.The transition of power in Harlem? The character of Bumpy, age, his tone, friendly talk, relationship with Frank, Frank as a driver, as a collector? Bumby meeting the people, the giveaways? The loyalty of Harlem inhabitants? His illness, death? The funeral? The celebrities? The glimpse of Frank and his work, setting the gasoline on fire, the death of the gangster, shooting him?
8.Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the background story, his age, experience as a young child, the abuse of the African Americans, his making a decision? His learning from the streets of Harlem? His contacting his cousin in Thailand, the military connection, his visit, the plan, on location, the local dealers, his eyeball contact with the locals, strength of character, determination, the deal, the bags coming into America? The bribes to the military? The factory, the range of workers, the women, breathing, no clothes, contamination? The money, changing his life? Pursuit by the police, demanding their cut? The Mafia and its attitudes, disbelief about an American gangster, the talks, getting protection?
9.The contrast with the world of Richie Roberts, his being in court, nervous about public speaking, his explanations? At work, the bond with his partner? The information about the accountant, finding the boot full of money, the arguments for and against, turning it in? His ethos? The reaction of the corrupt policeman, being shunned? His partner, on drugs, the money, killing the dealer? His death? His asking Richie to cover for him, Richie’s refusal? Richie’s own family situation, his love for his son, the relationship with his wife, his womanising? In the court, the lawyer – and the sexual relationship with her? The later court appearance, talking to his wife, her angry outburst? His decision to walk out and not contest the claim? His nervousness at the bar, studying, doing the exam, his pass?
10.The boss, calling Richie in, knowing his situation, the plan for the squad, the members of the squad, their personalities, appearance, style? Dedication? Richie’s relationship with them? The research, photographing, at Madison Square and photographing Frank with Joe Louis, in his fur? Tailing the New York cops, the confrontation with their chief, his reaction, warning off Richie? The vice-versa when he visited Richie in New Jersey? The undercover work? The uncovering of the Mafia, Barnes and his rivalry with Frank Lucas? The boss’s continuing support?
11.Frank, his dealers, the factory, his surface respectability, his code, cutting out the middle man, the cheaper and purer drugs? His love for his mother, visiting her, the family, employing them all, buying the mansion? The Thanksgiving Dinner and everybody together? His attraction to Miss Puerto Rica, his courting her, marriage? His prospering? His blowing up the corrupt police car? His further threats? His ability to turn to violence? His gathering the family together, the meal in the restaurant, his leaving, the confrontation in the street, his pulling the gun and shooting in cold blood, returning to the meal?
12.His family, the brothers, Huey as his lieutenant, Huey as loud, his brother trying to tone him down? The nephew giving up his sport, wanting to become like his uncle? The various jobs, the photos, Richie’s explanation, the points of distribution?
13.Frank, his minder, his support, advice, part of his entourage? The various people following him, his family loyalty? Their activities?
14.Richie and his catching the cousin, the hold over him, wiring him, listening in to the plans for the airport, going to the airport, getting the permission from the head? Examining the caskets, the military objections? Following the van, the confrontation, the raid, the shootout in the factory? Huey and his being pursued? The contrast with Frank and his going to church with his mother and his wife? The themes of ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘Amazing Grace’? The irony of the religion background?
15.The Vietnam war, ending, the phone call to his cousin, visiting, the further discussions with the Thai dealers, the bringing in of the drugs in the coffins?
16.The corrupt police, their shakedowns, their leader, the confrontations, Frank threatening them? Their being exposed, arrested, the head and his sitting in the garden, the suicide – with the vacuum cleaning in the background? The statistics about corrupt police in New York?
17.The world of celebrities, sports, political names? The Madison Square Garden fight, Ali versus Frazier, the atmosphere? The parties, Frank and his club?
18.Nick, the rival, his flamboyant style? The information that he gave evidence to the police later?
19.Frank, the arrest, going to court, the speeches, Richie’s address to the jury? The confrontation between the two, Frank trying to buy off Richie? No deal? Richie and his threats to Frank, the deal, the epilogue with the collaboration, the information, the photos, the arrests, even of the Mafia?
20.The aftermath, the judgment on Frank Lucas, admired, yet the ugly information about the drug-addicted military, the addicts on the streets, the collages of the addicts? The final frame of the American gangster as he left prison? The information about his life and work afterwards, Richie Roberts and his being his defence counsel? Their collaboration on the film and their advice?