Based on the life of drug-kingpin-turned-informant, Frank Lucas, who grew up in segregated North Carolina where he watched as his cousin was shot by the Klan for looking at a white girl. He eventually made his way to Harlem where he became a heroin kingpin by traveling to Asia's Golden Triangle to make connections, shipping heroin back to the US in the coffins of soldiers killed in Vietnam. He soon made upwards of one million dollars a day in drug sales. Lucas was shadowed by lawman, Richie Roberts, who finally helped bring the kingpin to justice. The two then worked together to expose the crooked cops and foreign nationals who made importing heroin so easy.
When I first saw the preview for this movie, even though I am a huge, huge fan of Denzel's, I decided not to see it. I was feeling burned out on all of the extreme violence in movies that I'd seen ("The Departed", "Blood Diamond", "The Shooter") and wanted to stay away from those films for awhile. But, as it turns out, a friend of mine wanted to see it, and I said "what the heck?" and we went. I just cannot resist Denzel.
Make no mistake: it's a very violent movie, even moreso because it's based on a true story of a drug lord in the late 60's, early 70's, so when you realize that a lot of what happens in the movie most likely happened in real life, it's disturbing, grim, seemingly hopeless.
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is the driver and bodyguard for current Harlem drug lord, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, and when Bumpy dies, Frank decides it's his turn up at bat, and he's going to show everyone around just who the boss is now. He knows that in order to be better than all the rest, he has to give the best product - in this case, heroin - out there to the customer, and sell it for less. To do this, he gets rid of the middleman and go straight to the source - the golden triangle. The timing couldn't be better as American soldiers are in Vietnam and since Frank has a relative stationed there, it's easy for the necessary arrangements to be made to have the drug shipped to America. "Blue Magic" is born...and distributed to the neighborhood. He makes a killing.
As Frank becomes richer, his life becomes better, and worse. He is able to give his mother, who still lives in North Carolina, a beautiful home, he owns his own club where he meets a Puerto Rican beauty queen named Eva that he eventually marries. But other crime lords feel like he's pushing them out, and NYPD's infamously corrupt Special Investigations Unit wants a piece of the action. Frank feels the pressure, but he's not one to back down, and he gives better than he gets. No one is going to ever tell Frank Lucas what he can and cannot do.
In the meantime, Richie Roberts is going through his own crap. His ex-wife is planning on leaving New Jersey and taking his son to Vegas, and him and his partner are pariahs in the police department for turning in almost a million dollars they seize in a crime. Eventually, though, things start to change a little and he's taken more seriously when he's chosen to lead a special task team of basically honest cops, and it's going to be their job to crack down on the escalating drug problem by going after the big dogs. Having no family life, Richie devotes all his time to this special task force with the determination of a bulldog.
At first, Richie and the guys are looking at long-time druglords, such as the Sicilian and Mexican mobs, and Lucas competitor Nicky Barnes. But as he investigates further, Frank's name keeps popping up, and he keeps showing up at big events, getting better seats that some of the most notorious druglords around. Richie knows that he, Frank Lucas, is the key, the one they need to bring down. After much time and patience, a weak link in Frank's organization gives them the desperately needed opportunity to take down the operation and arrest Frank Lucas.
The last few minutes of the movie revolved around Frank's and Richie's efforts to convict over 100 drug-related criminals, which lead to Frank getting a reduced sentence for his cooperation. At the end of the film, when he is finally released from prison, it is a very, very different world than the one he'd existed in.
Yes, "American Gangster" was a strong film, with good performances by both Denzel and Russell, who portray characters on different sides of the fence with their own code of honor. Richie is trying to do the right thing, but it doesn't always bleed over into his personal life, so he puts all his time and efforts into being a cop. Frank is a man determined to be filthy rich, not quite caring what heinous crimes he has to commit to get there, yet his devotion to his family makes him seem more human.
The whole drug scene is ultimately depressing, when you are shown over and over again the ugliness of addiction, the blood, the filth, the death, the extreme and horrible lengths a junkie will go to for their next fix. You realize that this is still going on today: people are getting rich off selling drugs, and addicts are dying for it. It's sad and horrifying.
Today, Frank Lucas is still alive and him and Richie Roberts consider themselves friends.
Here he is in a 2000 interview with New York Magazine.
Have you seen "American Gangster"?
Why or why not?
Do you have a favorite Denzel movie?