The American Dream: to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, outwit and outplay your competition and find yourself upon the heap of your defeated competitors rich and fat with cash. Frank Lucas was one man who managed to find the American Dream. He successfully competed and thrived in a business that was monopolized by the government, providing a service for people cheaper and better than his competitors. Unfortunately, he provided heroin--cheap, plentiful and high quality, provided for the poor in Harlem and all across the United States.
American Gangster opens with Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and his mentor walking through Harlem in the late '60s, lamenting the burgeoning loss of the neighbourhood market. They wax poetic about the businessman being squeezed out of the marketplace by discount stores buying directly from the supplier and selling goods on the cheap. With this lamentation, Lucas' mentor dies surrounded by the discount goods he so condemns. This discussion of business tactics drives the plot of the film: Lucas leaves his boss' shadow, travels to Vietnam and engages the supplier directly--becoming, basically, the Wal-Mart of heroin. Lucas is a family man and engages the entire family in business in an attempt to bring them the riches he earned through his own ambition and cleverness.
Compared to Lucas' family man persona is detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a Jewish detective in New Jersey whose boy scout behaviour at work--exemplified by turning a million dollars in unmarked bills found in the back of a trunk--is in stark contrast to his womanizing, his criminal friends and inability to raise a child. The two characters don't meet until the end of the film in a high octane chase scene that is shot in a wildly shaky, haphazard, visually-confusing manner, marring a movie otherwise dominated by smooth camerawork.
Of special note is Richie Roberts' enemy in the police force: Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), a drug dealing, scenery-chewing monster of a corrupt cop. Trupo is actually a major flaw of the otherwise brilliant film--in an effort to have a "bad guy" that the audience can hate the filmmakers turn Trupo into the most ridiculously stereotyped bad cop imaginable. He even sports an enormous moustache and shoots a dog to prove his corrupt cop cred.
The film takes place in the shadow of Martin Luther King's assassination and there is an indirect plot point throughout the film about the racial conflict typical of the era. An interesting argument throughout American Gangster concerns the progressiveness of the drug trade business in comparison to the stolid and conservative nature of the normal world of the late '60s and early '70s era New York. Throughout the film, white men scoff at the entire concept of a black man running a successful business--they pointedly ask whether or not the Italian mafia helps Washington's character run his operation. It's completely outside of fathomable reason for the old guard white men in the police department to imagine a black man running a highly successful, enormously clever and convoluted drug-running scheme. Washington's character even makes a point of this, saying that he desires to be "white-man rich" numerous times throughout the movie.
These racial undertones are also best shown whenever Richie has to deal with the Harlem projects. Of particular importance to the theme of racial tension is when Richie's junkie detective partner--having murdered a drug dealer in the projects attempting to rob him for some heroin and cash--is surrounded by a bunch of pissed-off black people clamouring for his head. As Richie navigates through the crowd, he uses his badge as a shield against the crowd--and the black crowd barely restrain their hate for Richie, showing the lack of respect for authority so inherent in the poor and disaffected people of Harlem in the late '60s.
The film is one of the most likely Oscar contenders for 2007. It's a well-scripted film, shot beautifully on location in Harlem and has strong performances from both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Compared to the anaemic number of high-quality Academy Award contenders, it's safe to say that come Oscar time, American Gangster will have numerous nominations. While a good and entertaining film, it's more reflective of the poor quality of movies previously released than the overwhelming quality of American Gangster.