Saturday, Feb. 16, 2008

American Gangster

By David Luhrssen
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Drug kingpin Frank Lucas is no one to mess with. Denzel Washington's depiction in American Gangster reveals a man whose fierce pride is frozen into an implacable smirk. Impervious to the heroin habit on which his fortune is based, Lucas is soul on ice. What happens when a cocky Harlem dope dealer disrespects him on a busy street corner? Lucas draws his gun, shoots him dead without blinking, calmly returns to his favorite diner and finishes breakfast.

That's cold. It's also a warning in big neon letters to anyone thinking of crossing him.

Although Richie Roberts isn't as suave or well tailored as Lucas, he's just as determined to get what he wants. The narcotics agent, played with rumpled steeliness by Russell Crowe, has a messy life with casual sex and an estranged ex-wife, yet in his career he's an Eagle Scout among vultures. When he discovers $1 million in the trunk of a criminal's car, he turns in the cash to the dismay of his fellow cops. In his department, an honest man can't be trusted. Like a dog on the hunt, Roberts is obsessed with tracking down the source of a new brand of heroin, more pure and potent than any seen before on the streets of New York and New Jersey.

Inevitably, Lucas and Roberts will cross paths. The collision will be explosive.

Loosely based on a true story and set in New York at the cusp of the 1960s and '70s, American Gangster is written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Ridley Scott, one among a dwindling band of filmmakers who can call upon the vast resources of Hollywood cinema for meaningful, character-driven stories. The dual protagonists of American Gangster share a tenacious dedication to certain traditional values even as they ignore the wider moral significance of their actions. Lucas and Roberts both came up hard paths, fighting for every steppingstone. They are smart, resourceful and determined.

Rather than peddle the drugs the corrupt NYPD steals from the Italian mob and sells to low-level dealers, Lucas goes to the source, the Golden Triangle on the jungle fringe of Thailand, China and Burma where poppies bloom. Working through a family network rooted in Old South ties of kinship, Lucas smuggles the grade-A dope into the U.S. aboard military planes ferrying dead servicemen home from Vietnam. Car washes and other New York businesses owned by Lucas' brothers served as fronts for the racket. Perhaps alone among lawmen,

Roberts was astute enough to identify Lucas as the city's biggest kingpin at a time when most cops assumed blacks occupied only the lower ranks of organized crime. Will he be able to unravel the kingpin's ingenious scheme?

Lucas was a prototype of the hustlers lionized in '70s blaxploitation flicks, yet he had little patience for gaudy, jive-talking black men in Superfly "clown suits," declaring that "the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room." Roberts could be compared to Gene Hackman's memorable "Popeye" Doyle from The French Connection, but he is Jewish and Doyle hated Jews. In contrast to the thrilling car chase at the climax of The French Connection, American Gangster boasts a similarly intricate, heart-pounding foot chase near its conclusion through the cement stairwells, cramped apartments and rusted terraces of a high-rise housing project. The New York of the era is painstakingly recreated as a Beaux Arts city covered in grime and graffiti, everything crumbling and dirty, a jarring symphony of police sirens playing in the distance.

Lucas is oddly fascinating and compelling as a remorseless man measuring out violence in stingy but potent doses. He stood for "integrity, honesty, hard work, family, never forgetting where you came from." Many will also recognize him as an embodiment of the can-do spirit of American enterprise, transposed to the shadow side of the American Dream. The values he expresses are sound, but he limits them to his own clan; his vision of a good society stops at his doorstep. American Gangster never flinches from depicting the evil effects of the product Lucas markets with such deadly business smarts.

The newly issued DVD includes over 18 minutes of footage unseen in the theatrical release. The new material neither alters the film's graceful rhythm nor adds much to the story. More interesting is the bonus disc with interviews of the real-life Lucas and Roberts. Unsurprisingly, the adversaries became friends after Lucas was arrested and turned state's evidence against the NYPD's corrupt narcotics squad.

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