The performance is all in Denzel Washington’s eyes, which can change from pure happiness to pure rage in a matter of seconds; his dead stare is by far the most useful weapon in his arsenal.
Frank Lucas was, by far, one of the most dangerous and frightening people ever to walk the streets of this country. Not only was he not afraid of killing people who stood in his way or disrespected him, he was responsible for bringing in and selling the largest quantities of heroin that America has ever seen. In American Gangster, we see the rise and inevitable fall of a man who hurt more people than he ever knew.
The movie is told from two different perspectives that eventually converge. We watch as Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) comes up through the ranks of the Harlem drug world in the 1970s under the tutelage of Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III), the most successful and feared drug lord of the time. After Bumpy dies in Lucas’ arms, all hell breaks loose in Harlem. People are killing people for territory and customers, no one is respecting the rules that were set up, and Lucas sees an opportunity to step up and take control in the void that Bumpy left.
At the same time, we watch Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) struggle through his personal and professional problems. He’s the only "clean" officer on the force, creating suspicion among the other officers. He is also constantly missing chances to see his son, who is in the custody of his ex-wife Laurie (Carla Gugino). His break comes when he is given the reins to start up a special unit to crack down on the drug trafficking in New Jersey, which leads him to the most popular heroin on the street, Blue Magic, the product and cash cow of Lucas.
Director Ridley Scott crafts the film to show the opposing lives of Lucas and Roberts, making neither a completely "good" or completely "bad" guy. Lucas is a criminal and a killer, but he is honest (to those that deserve it) and loyal, loves and protects his family, and goes to the extent of buying his mother (Ruby Dee) an enormous house where his whole family can live. Roberts is a law-abiding cop who won’t even take money that no one knows is missing, but he is neglectful of his son and wife, a womanizer, and probably the least qualified person to head up the special unit.
Washington and Crowe give some of the year’s finest performances. Washington perfectly imitates the calm determination that the real Frank Lucas must have had. The performance is all in Washington’s eyes, which can change from pure happiness to pure rage in a matter of seconds; his dead stare is by far the most useful weapon in his arsenal. Crowe, on the other hand, portrays Roberts as more frenetic and nervous, showing his uncertainty. Crowe uses his entire body to transform himself into Roberts and is extremely convincing in his performance.
Based on the article "The Return of Superfly" by Marc Jacobson and adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian, American Gangster draws a portrait of a time and place where an almost-too-good-to-be-true drug is unleashed on people who are already suffering. The savior and destroyer are the same man, and the people come to despise and depend on him at the same time.
American Gangster is a powerful film that shows how greed and corruption shape certain aspects of our society. Neither glorifying nor completely condemning what Lucas accomplished, the film allows the audience to decide where or with whom the moral responsibility lies. | Matthew F. Newlin