Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

American Gangster

What Happens?

The film opens on a city street. A kneeling and bloodied man is being doused with gasoline by Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) while Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) watches, calmly lighting a cigar and then throwing the flame at the man lighting him on fire. Frank then shoots the captive man, killing him. We then see via text that the film is "based on a true story."
We then find Bumpy standing on the back of a freight truck, throwing out turkeys for a clamoring crowd. We're told that this is Harlem, 1968. Bumpy calls to Frank, who is standing behind the crowd looking sullen. Frank shakes his head to say no.

Going for a walk later on a busy downtown street, Bumpy tells Frank "This is what's wrong with America. It's gotten so big, you just can't find your way. The grocery store on the corner is now a supermarket. The candy store is now a McDonald's. And this place, a super fucking discount store.Where's the pride of ownership? Where's the personal service?" Frank nods. They enter the discount store and Bumpy laments the cutting out of suppliers and middle men, by the stores buying direct from manufacturers. Bumpy sits down and Frank asks if he's ok. Bumpy just tells him "You can't find the heart of anything, to stick the knife." Frank calls for help as Bumpy doesn't look or sound good. He tells an employee to call an ambulance. Bumpy says "Forget it Frank. There's no one in charge." Bumpy starts wheezing.

We hear news reports regarding Bumpy's funeral, characterizing him as a generous man of the people. His funeral has a massive attendance including mob boss Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante,)the mayor, and the police chief. Frank watches the attendees, including gangsters Nikki Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Tango (Idris Elba) who annoys Frank by setting a glass on Bumpy's table without a coaster. When Frank cleans it up, Tango tells him to get a light for his cigarette. Frank goes to check on Bumpy's dog, who seems happy to see him. Bumpy's man Charlie Williams (Joe Morton) checks on Frank, telling him that Bumpy made him promise to see that Frank was taken care of if anything ever happened. Frank tells Charlie that most of the people attending owed Bumpy money, and he plans to collect from them all.
We then switch to a classroom scene, where we find Officer Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) called to present some legal facts, to be critiqued by his class. We jump to him explaining his problem with public speaking to his partner Jay, (John Ortiz) as they exit their car, Roberts carrying a sledgehammer. The two are to serve a subpoena to one of Robert's old friends, Campizi (Kevin Corrigan) Jay tells Roberts if he doesn't take the papers, he can throw them inside, and it's good service. Roberts throws in the paper in the split second the door is opened, and closed. Jay then breaks and opens the door with the hammer and they both rush in. Campizi bites Roberts before he's subdued, and in trying to avoid charges he offers Robert's "Big Al's Accountant." They seem to like that idea, and we switch to New Jersey, where Campizi is riding along with Roberts and Jay, to show them where the bookie is. Roberts lets Campizi go and they watch the bookie park his car, while waiting on a warrant to search it. Roberts gets impatient and convinces Jay not to wait for the warrant, so he doesn't miss school. They force open the trunk and find a huge sum of money. In their car they debate turning it in, Jay reasoning turning in such a large sum s tantamount to stating, they would also turn in cops who take money illegally. Roberts insists that they do turn it in, however. Counting it out at the station, in front of the entire department, Roberts determines they seized $987,000.00.  The chief, Lou Toback (Ted Levine) scolds Roberts for counting it in front of everyone and tells him to bag it and bring it to the property room. On the way there, the other officers glare at him, one of them saying "Fucking boy scout."
Next we see Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) signing drugs out of the evidence room in New York. Meanwhile an Italian gangster Rossi (Jon Polito) talks with Frank at a restaurant, explaining that Trupo and his men are seizing their drugs, cutting them down, and selling them back. They both agree that things are different with Bumpy not around to make sure no one bothers them. Rossi supplies Frank with drugs and we see some of the chaotic events going on due to Bumpy's absence. Rossi exclaims that order is needed.

We then find Frank at a restaurant with his right hand man, Doc (Ruben Santiago-Hudson.) Two younger neighborhood guys come in and Frank asks them about his cousin Nate. They tell him Nate has himself a club in Bangkok. He asks the two of them to come with him. Frank takes them to one of his drug hideouts and lets them shoot up for free as they're "in uniform."

Later in the restaurant, he's visited by Tango, who tells Frank he needs to pay him 20% of his profits to keep selling drugs. Despite Tango's confrontational approach, Frank calmly finishes his breakfast, and tells Tango that 20% isn't a legitimate way of doing business as that's his entire profit. He makes a display of leaving a tip for the waitress, but gives Tango nothing.

Frank catches a news show about the drug problems soldiers are having in Vietnam, taking special notice of the claims of easy availability. He makes a call to Bangkok to talk with Nate, who is in the Army.  Frank then has a check made out and gets a passport.
We then catch up with Richie arguing with his wife, Laurie (Carla Gugino) because she wants to move to Las Vegas, bringing their kid, Michael, along with her.  He claims Vegas isn't a good environment to raise a kid and she argues that having the kid around him and his friends isn't any better. Their argument is interrupted by some teenagers breaking glass after Richie asked them to "be cool." He takes a break and threatens to shoot them if they don't settle down and pick up the glass they broke. Laurie points out that he doesn't have a gun afterwards and remarks affectionately. "You're crazy, Richie."  and then tells him she'll see him in court. He tells his son he'll see him next week and Laurie takes off. Richie gets to his apartment and studies his law books. and takes a test later on at school.

In Bangkok, we see Frank finding Nate's club. Nate (Roger Guenveur Smith) introduces him to the local drug suppliers. They ask Frank how much he wants and he asks for 100 keys. After the meeting Nate, tells him they won't be able to get that much, suggesting he use many sources to put the amount together and that he'll have to settle for less than 100% purity. Frank tells him "I don't want that." He explains to Nate that he doesn't want to bother with middle man, but rather will go directly to the source. Nate cautions him about the jungle, citing snakes, tigers, Vietcong and deadly mosquitoes. Nate reluctantly agrees to go with him. They find the poppy fields and the General (Ric Young) in charge of them. He is skeptical of Frank's request, asking who he really represents and how he plans to get it into the US. Frank tells him he doesn't have to worry about any of that as he only represents himself. The general tells his men (in Chinese) that Frank is insane. Frank assures him, that there will be more purchasing after the initial purchase. He also tells the General he doesn't want to have to travel there again. The General offers his hand to seal the deal and Frank says "My man!" Frank makes arrangements with Nate who uses his military connections to get the drugs into the US. Nate asks for 50K, but Frank tells him he'll pay 100K instead, but insists it's all he's got, cautioning Nate about making sure it arrives.

Meanwhile, Richie is woken up by a frantic phone call from Jay, who claims a guy made his cover. He claims he had to kill the guy, and there's many people who heard the shots, so he needs Richie's help. Richie heads to the projects to help Jay, calling it in on the way for back up. However, once he identifies himself, the dispatcher claims he has no units in the area. Richie proceeds anyway and outside the building he finds a crowd of angry black people looking to get ahold of Jay. He gets into the apartment and instructs the paramedic already there to bandage the dead man's head and clean him up. He then pushes through the crowd, claiming the man is alive and on the way to the hospital. In the ambulance, Jay claims it was "kill or be killed." remarking that he was crazy to pull a gun on a cop. Richie asks why he was in the projects and Jay responds weakly that he was investigating things. Richie tells him "That guy didn't pull a gun on a cop, Jay. That guy pulled a gun on a junkie, a junkie who was trying to rob him." Jay is offended but obviously in too bad a state to be a convincing threat. Richie pulls up Jay's sleeve (and track marks) and takes the money out of Jay's pockets, and tells Jay "You murdered the guy and you robbed his money, then you called me to get you out of it. That makes me an accessory after the fact, motherfucker." Jay asks Richie to write the report the way he says it happens,but Richie says he can't. Jay tells him "I'm a leper because I listened to you and turned in a million bucks. No one will work with me after that." He asks Richie to write the report again, but Richie refuses. Jay then dives out of the ambulance and runs away.

We see Frank at a military base picking up his drugs. He has someone test the drugs and finds they're 100% pure. He sets up distribution, labelling his heroin as "Blue Magic." He quickly gets his product circulating all over. He watches over the streets in disguises and buys a luxury apartment with cash.

Richie is in court against his ex wife. His attractive female lawyer asks him about being a cop and his connections, pointing out that he knows a lot of "wise guys" particularly Joseph Sodano.  Richie says he grew up with them and he's done nothing wrong. His lawyer tells him she needs to understand some things his wife has said. Richie admits that Sodano is his son's godfather. Laurie sees them talking and remarks to her attorney "He's definitely fucking her." Richie's lawyer asks him "Do you really care about this, or do you just not want her to win, ever?" Richie replies by telling her there's a room upstairs that locks from the inside, implying that they should go have sex up there.

Richie gets a call and heads to the morgue to meet Detective Norman Reilly (Norman Reedus) Reilly asks him to identify Jay's corpse. Reilly tells Jay that the morgue's been crazy lately, pointing out a major new drug supply like nothing they've ever seen. Richie takes a distinctive looking "Blue Magic" packet from Jay's body.

Later, Richie works out at the station listening to the news announce a new special narcotics bureau.  Chief Toback comes to see Richie, and tells him "a detective without the support of his fellow detectives, can't do much."
Richie: You know why I don't have it.
Toback: Doesn't matter. You did what you had to do. Greatest city in the world, and it's turned into an open sewer. Everybody's stealin', dealin'. Look at you, you can't work because you did your job. Good news is you're not the only honest cop in town. The special narcotics bureau in Washington is not a dog and pony show. They are sincere. I know this because they want us to orchestrate it and I want you to head up things here on our end.
Richie: If it's federal, who do I answer to, the post office?
Toback: No, you answer to me, me and the US Attorney. No one else.
Toback tells him he won't have to come into the station and he can pick his own guys.

Frank's operation is going great and he calls his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in NC. Huey calls his Mother (Ruby Dee) over and they're clearly excited to hear from him. Frank has his entire extended family, including his five brothers drive up to NY and shows his Mother a huge house he bought for her. They all sit down for dinner together. Frank's mother is overjoyed at the house.
Richie meets with Freddie Spearman (John Hawkes) at a nightclub. Spearman is introducing Richie to two prospects for his task force, Moses Jones (Rza) and Alfonso Abruzza (Yul Vazquez) Spearman tells him that they're a package, and Richie has to take them all or he won't go along.
Frank walks the streets with all of his brothers, explaining how it was with Bumpy. He tells them that "Bumpy was rich, but he wasn't white man rich. You see? He wasn't wealthy. He didn't own his own company. he thought he did, but he didn't. He just managed it. The white man owned it, so they owned him. Nobody owns me though. I own my own company and my company sells a product that's better than the competition at a price that's lower than the competition." He introduces his brothers to his operation, showing them the apartment where his drugs are cut and packaged. The brothers are surprised that all the girls Franks has preparing his drugs are naked. Frank explains that it keeps them from stealing anything. He then has a talk with them at his favorite restaurant. He says "The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family, never forgetting where we came from. See, you are what you are in this world, that’s either one of two things: Either you're somebody ... or you’re nobody." He then excuses himself seeing Tango on the street. He asks Tango for money, from some drugs Tango got from him. Frank sets down a jar, recalling their previous conversation and demands twenty percent. Tango tells him "Get the fuck outta here." but Frank puts a gun to Tango's forehead. Tango, knowing there's a crowd around and it's daylight, asks "What you gonna do? You gonna shoot me in front of everybody?" Frank however, does exactly that, leaving twenty percent in a jar by Tango's head, and then walks calmly back to the restaurant.

Richie gets together with his new crew, informing them that they're only looking to bust big guys, not street level dealers. They ask him about the story of him turning in a million dollars, which he admits. They get ahold of some blue magic and test it, realizing it's twice the strength of normal stuff for half the price.

Frank goes to a fancy nightclub along with Charlie and Rossi. We also see Nikki Barnes there, who has made friends with Frank's brother Huey. Huey is dressed up flashy, similar to Nikki's style. Joe Lewis is at the club and has a woman with him who catches Frank's eye. Charlie tells him she's Miss Puerto Rico. Frank also notices his brother getting cozy with Nikki. Frank calls Huey to take a walk with him and criticizes his flashy clothes, telling him "The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room." Frank also questions his friendship with Nikki, finding that Nikki and Huey have been talking about him.  Frank tells him "If you wasn't my brother, I'd kill you." Frank then introduces himself to Miss Puerto Rico, Eva Kendo (Lymari Nadal) She asks him if the nightclub is his place and he tells her that it is. She asks "Why is it called Small's? Why don't you call it Frank's?" He tells her, "When you own something, you can call it what you want." He accompanies her back to her table.

Richie and his crew are hard at work.  Richie notices them putting a picture of his friend Joey Sodano, up on their target board. Richie opens his mail and finds he's passed the bar exam, but doesn't mention it. Richie questions some of the figures they're putting on the board, suggesting they have no evidence on any of their targets, and that they should take it down and start over from the street. Richie gets $20,000.00 from Toback, and pays a guy to get him some Blue Magic with it. After the dealer gets the money, Richie tails him into a diner New Jersey. Det. Trupo and his man show up at the same place however, and take the bag of money from the dealer. Richie sees this happen and confronts Trup in the street, telling him it's his money and that the bills are registered and sequenced. Trupo grudgingly hands over the money, but threatens Richie, to call ahead if he ever has to come into New York again.

Frank brings Eva home to meet his mother. She remarks that Eva is "an angel come down from heaven."  Richie gets a visit from Child Social Services, as he's letting a stewardess out of his place in the morning. He goes to visit Joey Sodano (Richie Coster) and tells him that the woman from Social Services mentioned his association, due to his wife's complaints about his character. Richie asks Joe to deny he's his son's godfather if asked. Richie also asks Joe about Blue Magic. Joe tells him it's putting a lot of his guys out of work and that it's upsetting "the natural order of things."

Frank has Nate send over another shipment with his Army connections. He has his brothers set up their own businesses;  Melvin in Queens, Terrence in Newark, Dexter in Brooklyn, and Turner in the Bronx, and Huey in Bergen County, NJ, to help distribute product. Frank has a party at his place, which is interrupted by an altercation between an obnoxious police officer and Huey's driver. Frank beats the driver after he shoots the cop in the leg. Frank gets angry at Huey, and tells him to get rid of his driver. Huey remarks that the driver is his cousin. Frank tells him "He ain't shit to me." He sets up a new rule that no one can talk to him directly except Huey, who will come to Frank with their messages.

Frank has a meeting with Dominic Cattano, who isn't happy that Blue Magic is hurting his business, calling Frank's operation a monopoly and compares himself to a dairy farmer, being put out of business by unfair competition. Dominic suggests he sell Blue Magic to him at a wholesale price, and in return he'll guarantee Frank's "piece of mind." Frank agrees to give them a big discount.

Richie's crew is watching an ad for an Ali - Frazier fight that night. Frank gives Eva a gift and she gives him one back, an over the top chinchilla coat, with a matching hat. Richie arranges to attend the match with a camera to see all the prominent crime figures attending including Dominic Cattano. Frank and Eva have the best seats available, better than Cattano, and the Chinchilla coat and hat make him stand out. He's noticed by Richie, who takes some pictures of him talking with Cattano, and by Det. Trupo.

Richie shows his pictures of Frank to his men, who reason that he's low level or they'd know his name. Richie points out how good his seats were, and points out that Joe Louis shook his hand. Richie gives them the plate number from the limo Frank arrived in and has them run it down.

Frank marries Eva, which draws a huge crowd. However, Trupo pulls over their car as they leave the ceremony and tells Frank "You know, a man who walks around in a $50,000.00 chinchilla coat and never even bought me a cup of coffee, there's something wrong there. Pay your bills, Frank." Frank tells him he pays off the cops, but Trupo tells him he's "Special Investigations" because he's special. He tells Frank to pay him Ten Grand every month and lets them go. Frank goes home and burns the chinchilla coat

Richie and his unit have found out who Frank is and that he worked for Bumpy Johnson, and that all of his family has relocated around the city. They know about each of the brother's businesses. Richie remarks "Everything about Frank's life seems unpretentious, ordinary, and legit. Richie has also studied Frank's predictable schedule. His men remark that he doesn't behave like a typical gangster. Richie points out that Bumpy didn't either, and he ran Harlem for years. He compares Bumpy teaching Frank to how a Sicilian family would've run. We see Frank handing out turkeys just like Bumpy had done. Richie thinks that rather than Frank, they want whoever Frank is working for, as he doesn't realize Frank is bringing in the heroin himself.

We then see Det. Trupo, at his house in the morning answering his doorbell. He opens the door to find a live turkey in a cage outside his door. He then sees his prized sports car blow up. Frank has an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner at his mother's house with the whole family attending. We also see some scenes of junkies overdosing. After dinner Frank's family gathers outside. He asks his nephew Steve, who he had arranged a tryout with the Yankees, why he hadn't tried out. Steve tells him he doesn't want to play ball anymore, as he'd rather be like Frank. Frank is called away by Huey, who tells him there's a problem. Frank and Huey visit Nikki Barnes at his nightclub. Frank tells him to stop cutting his Blue Magic, and if he has to, to call it something else. as the name stands for his quality of product and weakens his brand name. Nikki gets insulted by Frank's demanding tone, but agrees.

Frank and Huey get pulled over by Trupo. Huey tells Frank that they have product in the trunk of the car. Frank asks Trupo about his Thanksgiving, before he's asked to get out of the car. Frank asks Trupo about his car, and is told it's gone. Trupo has his men open the trunk. Richie watches the scene from a distance through binoculars. Trupo shows Frank the drugs in the trunk and asks what they should do about it. Frank suggests "We’re gonna shut the trunk and go home to our wives, have some warm apple pie, apple cider."
Trupo: I got a better idea. [takes some of the drugs] Or would you rather I took it all and threw you and your brother in the fuckin' river?
Frank: I don’t know, would you rather it’s your house that blows up next time?
Richie recognizes the shakedown. Frank and Huey get in the car, and Frank gives Huey a beating for leaving the drugs there.

Richie discusses the situation with Toback, remarking that they're not getting any help from other agencies. Toback tells them it's because they all think he's on the take. Roberts remarks that he thinks they don't want the drugs to stop as fighting them employs too many people.

Richie visits Joe Sodano, who has just got a microwave oven. Richie is impressed as he's never seen one before. Joe shows him a picture of a nice place in Aspen, and tells him "It's your place." Richie is insulted and puts the picture down. Joe asks "Isn't there something we can do about leaving the big guy alone?" Richie asks why he would risk their friendship over this. Joe tells him "I care what happens to you." Richie leaves, with Joe telling him there's no other choice. This reinforces Richie's suspicions about Frank.

Richie  meets his wife in court again. He asks her not to punish him for being honest. She says "What are you saying, that because you were honest and you didn't take money like every other cop, I left you? No, you don't take money, for one reason, to buy being dishonest about everything else. And that's worse than taking money nobody gives a shit about...You know, I'd rather you took it and been honest with me. Or don't take it, I don't care. But then don't go cheat on me. Don't cheat on your kid by never being around. Don't go out and get laid by your snitches and secretaries and strippers!...You think you're going to heaven because you're honest, but you're not. You're going to the same hell as the crooked cops you can't stand." Richie looks at his wife while his lawyer is talking, and then agrees that he's not a fit parent. He tells her to go to Vegas, and he'll come see his kid when he can.

Frank and Eva go out for a ride on Christmas Eve and he notices Trupo tailing them. He has Doc give bring Trupo champagne while he and Eva visit Charlie. They then take a ride to Frank's club, Doc assuring them it's safe to go. Stopping for Chinese food, Eva asks to wait in the car. Frank realizes Doc has the car keys and goes to get them from him to turn the heat on. Crossing the street to get back to the car he notices a car speeding towards his own. He rushes over to grab Eva as they start shooting and gets her out before she's hurt, getting shot in the arm himself. Eva declares they're leaving, but Frank refuses, as it's his home, and America.

Trupo stops in to see Richie, talking about the attempt on Frank's life. He tells Richie they need to work together to "keep this cash cow alive." Trupo notices the target's on RIchie's board and asks "Are you actually going to arrest Frank Lucas? What's the matter with you?" RIchie tells him "Everybody in New Jersey's crazy. You know what we do here? Cops arrest bad guys." He tells Trupo next time he comes over the bridge to call first and make sure it's safe.

Frank confronts Cattano about his guaranteed piece of mind. Cattano tells him it could have been anyone, and ultimately it was his own success shooting at him. Frank sees reports about the evacuation of Viet Nam. He calls Nate, who tells him there's nothing he can do and "it's all over." Frank asks to get 2,000 keys in the air. When Nate won't entertain the idea, Frank tells him he's coming over there.

Frank's cousin Jimmy (Huey's driver) gets arrested for trying to shoot a girl. Richie finds out and they pressure him to wear a wire while talking to Frank. In Viet Nam, the General tells Frank "Quitting while you're ahead, isn't the same as quitting." Frank arranges to have his shipment sent to the US. He calls Huey, while Jimmy listens nearby with his wire, and Richie gets the flight number of the drug shipment, which is a military plane. Richie gets a warrant to search the plane and presents it. Most of the cargo is coffins with bodies of the dead Army men. They tear apart everything but the coffins. Trupo meanwhile invades Frank's house, claiming a no knock warrant. He has his men destroy everything looking for the getaway cash "every gangster has lying around." Trupo kills Frank's dog and finds a stash beneath the doghouse. Richie is prevented from looking in the coffins by the US Attorney General (Roger Bart) who tells them that the PR resulting from their suspicion of the Army transporting drugs into the US is causing pressure for the entire office to be shut down. He tells the Attorney that Frank Lucas, a black man is his target. The Attorney, hasn't heard of Frank and takes this as a joke, saying "No fucking nigger has ever accomplished what the American Mafia hasn't in 100 years!" Richie responds "And you would know that how? Why? Cause your head is stuck up your fucking ass?" He kicks RIchie out and Toback tells Richie to make sure it sticks. Richie's men keep an eye on the coffins.

Frank returns to the US and hears about Trupo's visit. He grabs a gun and gets ready to leave. His mother insists on talking to him, telling him "You don't shoot cops." and warning him that he'll make things so bad everyone will leave him. Frank then takes her and Eva to church.
Richie's guys see Stevie Lucas show up t the hangar with a van, to pick up the heroin from the coffins. The follow the van to Frank's drug headquarters and Toback gets them a warrant. They infiltrate the building with a large team. Jones acts like a junkie looking or Blue Magic to get close to the door with their guard down. They storm inside and a shootout starts, killing Stevie and many of Frank's men. Huey runs and Richie chases him down and arrests him.

When church gets out, Frank finds many squad cars waiting outside the door for him, with Richie leaning against his car right in front of him. Richie's men shut down all of Frank's brothers' businesses at the same time.

We then see Richie in a suit, prosecuting the case against Frank in court. He and Frank also talk in closed chambers, as Richie wants him to give up names. Frank insists that no one will testify because he took care of Harlem. Richie tells Frank that many would testify against him because a black businessman represents progress and once he's gone things can go back to normal. Frank tells him "Normal is seeing the police right up to my house, dragging my little 12 year old cousin out, tying him to a pole, shoving a shotgun in his mouth so hard they bust his teeth, then they bust two shotgun shells in his head and knock his fucking head off." He mentions the possibility of Richie getting his head blown off, but Richie just tells him to get in line. Realizing neither bribery or threats will affect Richie, he agrees to name names. Richie tells him if he lies about one name, he'll never get out of prison. Frank doesn't believe that Richie wants the names of police officers but Richie assures him that he wants them all.
Frank: You want your own kind?
Richie: They're not my kind. They're in business with you, Frank. They ain't my kind. They ain't my kind, like the Italians are not yours, alright?
He promises Frank that if he lies about anything he'll never leave prison. Frank tells him "I want them cops, that took money out of my pockets."

The two of them start working together, Frank identifying dirty cops who are then arrested. Trupo blows his own head off rather than face other consequences. Richie tells Frank "It's good work." We see in text that 250 million dollars in assets were confiscated from Frank, and that 3 quarters of the New York City Drug Enforcement Agency was convicted due to their efforts. Thirty members of Frank's family were convicted on drug charges. Richie Robert's quit the prosecutor's office to become a defense attorney, starting with Frank as his client. Frank was sentenced to 15 years due to his cooperation. We then see Frank getting released from prison.

What About It?

American Gangster was marketed with the tagline "There are two sides to the American Dream."  and it certainly delivers on that promise. The two sides here are both unconventional ones as well, with Washington's Lucas and Crowe's Roberts serving to illuminate each other due to their vast disconnect. If it had been focused entirely on Lucas, this could have been a simple rise and fall of a gangster story, and it certainly does contain those elements, but adding Roberts story enhances it, giving us a bigger view of the world in the film as well as a great counterpoint between them. Both me work in well established systems according to their own terms, but frequently we find that there is little division between their two sides. Robert's fellow cops are as much a part of  the drug problem as anyone Lucas works with. While it is based on a true story, I'm only looking at the world presented in the film and the characters as they appear in it. Certainly real world gangsters carrying movies is a long tradition and our awareness of figures like Al Capone, John Dillinger, among others has come from their film portrayals. Like those earlier gangsters, we know that the story isn't over until the gangster takes a fall. One remarkable feature about this film is that those earlier gangsters were public enemy number one, hounded by the FBI, but Frank Lucas' career coming to an end is different, rather than inevitable, it happens against the odds, as the system seemed happy to support him.

Denzel Washington gives us an interesting character, as ruthless as he'll ever need to be. We see that before he makes it on his own, he's perfectly  content with lighting a man on fire, and shooting him to put him out of his misery. We see that the mentorship of Bumpy Johnson has a profound effect on him. As he tells his wife, Bumpy was as important a figure to him as Martin Luther King Jr., and was most certainly a strong father figure. We get a sense of real affection and loyalty between the two men. At Bumpy's funeral, he tells Charlie he plans to collect all the money Bumpy was owed. THis comes across as a matter of principle, Frank can't tolerate the disrespect he perceives from outstanding debts. The funeral is also where we first see that Frank is aware of everything around him. He sees Tango and Nikki Barnes treating the funeral like a social event. Tango attempting to talk to Frank like a servant is certainly not missed, but Frank is not a hothead, he is willing to wait until the proper time to settle these matters. He has learned some things from Bumpy very well, like take care of Harlem and it will take care of you. He also learns to surround himself by those he trusts, in this case, bringing his entire family up from North Carolina. As he tells his brothers, "The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family, never forgetting where we came from. See, you are what you are in this world, that’s either one of two things: Either you're somebody ... or you’re nobody." As if to illustrate his point, he shoots Tango in the head in broad daylight in full view of his brothers. We sense that they get the point.

He also follows Bumpy's example, and doesn't live a flashy gangster life, not wanting to put a target on his back, as he tells Huey. This is of course difficult, as it can conflict with "being somebody." A part of Frank wants to brag and show off his status. He gives in to this only one time, wearing the chinchilla coat his wife bought him, and buying seats for the Ali - Frazier match that are themselves a statement about his status. It's this one departure from his routine that puts him on everyone's radar, both Trupo, and Richie Roberts taking notice. Lucas gets his mistake, as Trupo is happy to help point it out. He burns the coat symbolically, but it's already too late, the word is out.

As much as he learned from Bumpy, he disagreed with him too. He loved Bumpy but had his own opinion of Bumpy's failings. As he tells his brothers "The man I worked for had one of the biggest companies in New York City. He didn't own his own company. White man owned it, so they owned him. Nobody owns me, though." Frank doesn't want to be Bumpy, he wants to be more than Bumpy, in a believable father/son type model. It's fitting that Bumpy dies in the discount store after lamenting the cutting out of middle men. "You can't find the heart of anything, to stick the knife." he laments, but Frank sees it differently. He wants to become the discount store, going directly to the manufacturer. Bumpy's death, surrounded by discount televisions is very much a symbolic passing on of the torch, one generation to the next. Bumpy's earlier lament, "This is what's wrong with America. It's gotten so big, you just can't find your way. The grocery store on the corner is now a supermarket. The candy store is now a McDonald's. And this place, a super fucking discount store.Where's the pride of ownership? Where's the personal service?" is a valid one, except that Frank has grown up surrounded by McDonalds. His America is different than Bumpy's and Frank's success comes from applying his own view of America, to the foundation that Bumpy gave him.

Frank is a strategist and a planner surrounded by those who don't think beyond short term success. Tango and Nikki Barnes, for example are content with being respected on their own turf and have no thought whatsoever of sound business practices. Tango demands 20% from Frank's drug profits. Frank's contempt for this idea, seems as much caused by the absurdity of the business model as it is by any dislike for Tango. Asking a man to give you his entire profit, will not keep that man working, and ultimately puts you both out of business. Nikki Barnes cutting Frank's brand name Blue Magic produces a similar reaction. Not only does this lead to overdoses, but it weakens customer faith in the product, which Frank cannot abide.

Frank's rise is also helped inability of many to believe that a black man could control the heroin market. When he first shows up on Richie's board, Richie assumes they're not after Frank but the man he's working for. When the US Attorney shows up to halt Richie from searching coffins, he seems to take the very idea as a personal insult, as if such a thing is possible for the "American Mafia" but not by a black man. This works very well for Frank for quite awhile. Frank is also helped by rampant corruption on all sides. Corrupt Army personell are the most important part of his business mode, and corrupt cops are instrumental to his daily operations. Even after blowing up Trupo's car, Trupo urges Richie not to hassle Lucas, and to "keep this cash cow alive." Frank's adherence to sound business practices makes it very easy for him to stay on top. The mafia is only too happy to let Frank control the market, as long as he gives them wholesale prices. This demonstrates again his disconnect with those like Tango and his ilk. Everything is about the profit.

Frank's business mentality also comes through after he's arrested. Frank isn't interested in the traditional "you'll never take me alive." gangster downfall. Once he realizes that Richie will in all likelihood get him convicted, he simply tries to negotiate the best deal possible. He recognizes that the most he can hope for is less prison time, and payback against the cops that personally threatened him. It's just another business transaction to Frank and once they agree, he approaches the task with pleasure.

Crowe's Richie Roberts is a great contrast to Lucas. He's certainly a long way from business minded, as we see when he turns in a million dollars as evidence, which it would seem department custom would require him to pocket. This move practically kills his career, ensuring that his calls for back up are ignored and earning a great deal of enmity from everyone except Toback. Richie can't stand the idea of cops taking money, but he's hardly the boy scout he's thought to be. Richie doesn't have a passive sense of goodness. He's a hothead, who has his own idea about the right thing to do.

This isn't as simple as white hat versus black hat. Richie is no paragon of virtue. Despite being a married man, he clearly spends a lot of time sleeping around. He's honest about his job, but doesn't feel the same compulsion as applied to his personal life. We also learn that Richie grew up with a lot of "wise guys" and still considers many of them his friends. This is perhaps a tougher distinction to reconcile, but Richie seems to have no trouble with it. He compartmentalizes, expecting his friends to know that he isn't a corrupt cop and to behave accordingly around him. He is close enough to mafia guy Joe Sodano, to have him be his son's godfather, but feels their friendship is threatened when Joe attempts to buy him a property to get him to lay off Lucas. Richie is not contemptuous of this gesture (as he would be towards a dirty cop) as much as he is hurt. He clearly expects his friends to know where the lines are. When he asks Joe for some information, he acknowledges these lines, telling Joe he doesn't have to answer him. It would seem that to Richie, being a mobster is not the worst thing in the world, but claiming to be a cop and then acting like a mobster is unforgivable. When Trupo visits his office seeking to help protect Lucas, Richie tells him, "Everybody in New Jersey's crazy. You know what we do here? Cops arrest bad guys." Richie also seems to have little tolerance for drug dealers. This is best shown when he addresses Jay, who is strung out, having just killed and robbed a dealer. Richie tells him the dealer pulled a gun not on a cop, but on a junkie. In Richie's mind, the two things cannot coexist.

Whether you could call Richie a good person overall, or not, is arguable. He's certainly not portrayed as a good husband or father, but he puts a lot of effort into being a good cop. He does have some aspirations, and we see him taking the steps to become a lawyer, so we can see that Richie has some idea that "law" is a worthwhile occupation. Some of his preconceptions are challenged during his experience leading the drug task force. He remarks to Toback, that he wonders if the government wants to win the drug war due to lack of help from various agencies. He reasons that the war on drugs produces a lot of jobs. The US Attorney's intervention with the Army plane search seems to back up his suspicions, as the political ramifications seem to trump the value of stopping the drugs from coming in. This angers Richie, but he isn't shown as naive. He understands that the system is compromised all over, and he's content to do what he can personally. It's telling that he switches from the prosecutor's office to being a defense attorney, a position often reviled, but still serving the law in a way which makes sense to himself.

What Richie and Frank have in common is that they are both unbelievably determined and stubborn when set on a course. Neither has much use for the counsel of others either. Both are supremely confident in their own version of the world. In this case, that's exactly what's required to bring down Frank, as a good cop without Richie's stubborn streak would likely have given up long before getting close. Both men also play their cards close to the vest. Richie doesn't give us any exposition to explain why he is how he is. The only hint we get from Frank about his own ruthlessness is his story about cops brutalizing his cousin, and even that is only given in hopes of intimidating Richie. Neither man has much use for playing victim.

In the world of American Gangster, even the other cops are on Frank's side. This pays off in the end, however, uniting both of them in their shared hatred of the dirty cops around them. As formidable as both men are, both together, focused on the same task, we are assured they will achieve major results.

Ridley Scott presents us with a smart film, cleverly making use of the gangster genre by examining it from a modern angle. The character of Frank is informed by the gangsters before him, but updated by modern business methods. If the product had been a legal one, this could have been simply a movie about a daring entrepreneur and his rise to wealth. But, Scott reminds us, this is a product that kills people and gets them killing each other. Filmed primarily in bright daylight colors, we see that this isn't a noirish gangster, but a figure who knows how to grab power in broad daylight and get away with it, just as easily as shooting Tango in the head. The film is packed with major talent; Chiwetel Ejiofor's hopelessly impressionable Huey, RZA's classic junkie impersonation, Idris Elba's ruthlessly clueless Tango, Armand Assante's Renaissance man mob boss, Josh Brolin's so crooked he doesn't even think about it, Trupo, and Clarence Williams III's convincing older patriarch Bumpy Johnson. That being said, the movie clearly belongs to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, both leaving no room for doubt that they are the center of everything.

American Gangster seems to tell us that even gangster's have to get with the times, Frank Lucas being the Ray Kroc to Bumpy Johnson's McDonald brothers. The same holds true for the law pursuing the gangsters, blatant police corruption on all levels is replaced by Richie Robert's unprovable nagging feeling that the war on drugs isn't intended to be won. But, whatever model is in place, men of confidence and vision are uncommon, as other than Richie and Frank, most of these characters are content to follow the path of least resistance. It's also important for a cop to be a cop, and a gangster to be a gangster, it would seem, as both Frank and Richie can agree that there's no use
for those playing both sides of the fence.


photos by jan said...

Wow, I haven't read one of these in awhile. I forgot just how good you are...<3

INDBrent said...

Thanks Jan! Always good to see you and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Unknown said...

Nice review! This is an odd film that I have conflicted feeling about. While I do admire it greatly, to me it is a good not great film. At times, Scott seems to be trying to hard to achieve the greatness of crime films from the '70s, like a mashup of early Coppola, Scorsese and Friedkin but just can't quite do it. I dunno if it's the script or what but the film certainly is firing on all cylinders, great cast, expertly shot, great use of locations, etc. but it is missing that special something that would make it a truly great film like THE FRENCH CONNECTION or MEAN STREETS.

That being said, many films would be so lucky to be half as awesome as this one is.

INDBrent said...

Thank J.D., I totally agree with that. It's perplexing that for a film as strong as this one with so much talent, it doesn't engage you like the classics you mention. I think the main cause is the detachment of Lucas. He truly comes off as more of a businessman than a gangster, his acts of violence being small scale and precise. That being said, this different approach is what makes the movie an important one in the genre, Lucas being a pivotal crime figure who is otherwise unrepresented. Now that I think of it, it feels like a cousin of "Blow" Not truly "great" but solid and definitely having it's own place. Certainly can't deny the talent in it.

Unknown said...

You make some good points! I do agree that it is an important film. I guess it just feels like it exists in the shadow of greater, older films.

Nice comparison to BLOW, a film which I really like. I would also throw in DONNIE BRASCO, which, in retrospect, may actually be a really great film.

INDBrent said...

"the shadow of older and greater films." well said. Good call on Donnie Brasco, definitely in the same family and a possibility for "great" I haven't watched that one in a long time. I should see how it holds up.

Fashion Updates said...

nice movie and impressing story. No doubt I will watch it.