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American Gangster is a 2007 neo-noir gangster film directed by Ridley Scott adapted from a New York magazine story "The Return of Superfly", by Mark Jacobson, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.


Filming was done on location in New York City. American Gangster was released in the United States and Canada on November 2, 2007. The film was also nominated for two Academy Awards, including a notable Best Supporting Actress nomination for Ruby Dee who appears on screen for less than 10 minutes.

This is the second film Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe worked on since Virtuosity. This is also the first time director Ridley Scott has worked with Denzel Washington in comparison to his brother - Tony Scott who has worked with Denzel on several films.


Plot

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a real-life gangster from Harlem who smuggled heroin into the United States on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a detective attempting to bring down Lucas' drug empire.

Synopsis

Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III), a disciplined and intelligent gangster, runs much of Harlem and imparts his wisdom onto his former driver turned right-hand man, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Johnson dies of a heart attack in 1968, at an electronics store. Frank dislikes the new, flashy gangsters and decides to take control. To gain money and power, he travels to Bangkok, Thailand, and with the help of his "cousin" who is an Army Staff NCO, strikes a deal with a Chinese nationalist general in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, who supplies him with pure heroin. Starting with a first shipment of 100 kilograms, Frank has the drugs transported back to America via military service planes. His final shipment comprises two tons hidden in the coffins of seven dead U.S. soldiers from the Vietnam War.

Newark Police Department detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is juggling a failing marriage, late-night law school classes, and his police career. When Richie and his partner, Javier Rivera, discover nearly $1 million in unmarked bills in a car, Richie resists temptation and turns the money in. His rare honesty makes him a hated member of his precinct, causing his partner to be exiled from the force, while Richie's rampant womanizing behavior and undercover double life leads his wife to seek a divorce and custody of their son. After his exiled partner dies from overdosing on "Blue Magic", a relatively new and powerful type of heroin being sold for less money than its competition, Richie's honesty catches him a break when his superior Captain Lou Toback (Ted Levine) puts him in charge of a newly created task force to stop major drug trafficking in Essex County, New Jersey by going after the actual supplier, rather than the middle-men. Richie handpicks honest cops and gets to work on finding who is supplying Blue Magic.

Frank's unique drug supply enables him to sell pure heroin, as contrasted with the adulterated product sold by his rivals, and at a lower price, because he cut out the middle men in the supply chain. He creates a brand “Blue Magic” and with an effective monopoly on quality product, Frank quickly makes a fortune and buys several nightclubs and apartments. He moves his family from North Carolina to New Jersey, where he purchases a large estate for his humble mother (Ruby Dee). His five brothers are enlisted as his lieutenants in the drug trade – forming “The Country Boys” who work together to traffic and sell dope on Harlem streets.

During his rise, Frank meets and falls in love with Eva (Lymari Nadal), a Puerto Rican beauty queen. Through his discipline, organization, and willingness to kill those in his way, Frank quickly rises to the top of the Harlem drug and crime scene. As Frank's business prospers, he makes a point of operating quietly and dressing with a modest conservatism both as a sign of strength and to avoid attracting the attention of the law. However, Frank disregards this habit for his wife for one ostentatious night out, attending the Fight of the Century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, in a gaudy chinchilla fur coat and hat, along with a ringside seat. As it happens, Roberts is on duty observing the event and sees this unknown, but obviously wealthy person associating with high-level criminals, as well as having better seats than the Italian Mafia. Roberts becomes suspicious, and he begins to investigate this unknown (to him) figure in New York organized crime. Even as Frank realizes he has exposed himself to police scrutiny, he must make deals with the Mafia, in this case Lucchese crime family Mob boss Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante), and fend off corrupt NYPD detectives, such as Det. Trupo (Josh Brolin), who attempt to extort and threaten him. Trupo's dislike of Frank is capped when his prized Shelby Mustang is bombed before his eyes. Frank must also contend with local crime figure Leroy Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who is taking some of Frank's product, diluting it himself, and selling it under Frank's "Blue Magic" brand name.

Unidentified assassins try to kill Frank’s wife, further destabilizing him and threatening his marriage. Things take a turn for the worse when Frank sees the U.S. military vacating Vietnam, which in turn cuts off his primary heroin transportation. His Kuomintang supplier sympathetically tells him "Quitting while you are ahead... is not the same as quitting." Richie catches another break when his men witness Frank's cousin shooting a woman. They use the driver’s predicament to get him to wear a wire. The wire allows Richie and his task force to discover when a plane carrying drugs is landing, though Richie is ordered to cease his search of the coffins by a Federal agent who snarls an anti-Semitic slur at him.

Trupo leads his band of police officers to Frank's mansion where they take Frank's emergency cash supply. Frank is enraged at what Trupo did, and sets out to kill him and other associated officers. Frank's mother pleads that he not go through with it, and Frank decides not to murder Trupo. When the plane lands, Richie and his men follow the drugs into Newark's projects and obtain a warrant. A huge group of police and detectives attack the drug apartments en masse and a large shootout ensues. Frank is at church when the bust goes down, but he is arrested after the service ends. Frank and Richie finally meet, and Frank’s attempts to threaten Richie are unsuccessful. Richie tells Frank that he will go to prison for the rest of his life unless he provides all the information he has, and accurately. With no other options, Frank decides to provide names of numerous other criminals, including his and Richie’s common enemies: corrupt NYC detectives. Numerous corrupt cops are arrested, and a distraught Trupo kills himself to avoid arrest.

Richie, having passed the bar exam, prosecutes Frank. Some time after the Lucas trial, he eventually leaves the prosecutor's office, and becomes a defense attorney. The first client he takes is Frank. Because of his cooperation, Frank receives a relatively light sentence of 15 years rather than the original 70. He is arrested in 1975. At the film’s end, he steps out of jail in 1991 significantly older and out of place, but with Richie waiting to pick him up.

Cast

  • Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas
  • Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor as Huey Lucas
  • Josh Brolin as Detective Trupo
  • Lymari Nadal as Eva
  • Ted Levine as Lou Toback
  • Roger Guenveur Smith as Nate
  • John Hawkes as Freddie Spearman
  • RZA as Moses Jones
  • Yul Vazquez as Alfonse Abruzzo
  • Malcolm Goodwin as Jimmy Zee
  • Ruby Dee as Mama Lucas
  • Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Doc
  • Carla Gugino as Laurie Roberts
  • John Ortiz as Javier J Rivera
  • Cuba Gooding Jr. as Nicky Barnes
  • Armand Assante as Dominic Cattano
  • Joe Morton as Charlie Williams
  • Ritchie Coster as Joey Sadano
  • Idris Elba as Tango
  • Common as Turner Lucas
  • Tip Harris as Stevie Lucas
  • Kevin Corrigan as Campizi
  • Robert Funaro as McCann
  • Jon Polito as Rossi
  • KaDee Strickland as Richie's Attorney
  • Norman Reedus as Detective in Morgue
  • Roger Bart as US Attorney
  • Ric Young as Chinese General
  • Clarence Williams III as Bumpy Johnson (uncredited)

Reception

Critical response

Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes reports that 81% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 216 reviews, with a rating average of 7.00/10, with the consensus being: "American Gangster is a gritty and entertaining throwback to classic gangster films, with its lead performers firing on all cylinders." On Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean score out of 100 to reviews from film critics, the film has a score of 76 based on 38 reviews.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a perfect four star rating and opined, "This is an engrossing story, told smoothly and well." Ebert also praised Crowe's performance, saying that his contribution to the storytelling was "enormous". Paul Byrnes of The Sydney Morning Herald felt that American Gangster was "one of the most intelligent gangster films in years" and expressed that the film offers "the spectacle of grand themes and two bigger-than-life characters played by two of the best actors in cinema." Concluding his review, Byrnes gave the film four out of four stars.

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