Prior to the news of "American Gangster", I had no idea who Frank Lucas was. Couldn't identify him in a line-up even if it was just him and some other cat. But you put Denzel Washington in the starring role of a film featuring Lucas's life and he all the sudden becomes very interesting. It also doesn't hurt that the movie is yet another entry into the gangster genre that always manages to enthrall me so much.
Lucas (Washington) ran the most powerful drug empire in Harlem in the 1970s. Maybe even on the entire east coast. "American Gangster" chronicles the story of his fast-track rise to power. As it follows the exploits that put Lucas in his lofty position, we also get to see the events that would cause his path to become intertwined with his eventual nemesis, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Roberts is an anomaly at that time as he is an honest cop. He becomes obsessed with dismantling the hierarchy of the drug underworld.
I was leery going in that with a 2 hour 40 minute running time, "American Gangster" would take too long to develop. I thought for sure it would be one of those biopics that would have to take us back to the man's humble beginnings as a downtrodden teen where we would have to see the environment that led him to his life in organized crime. That fortunately was not the case at all. It jumped right into the thick of things as they chose to start at the very moment where Frank's rise to power began.
This could have almost been known as "Hoodlum 2". Bumpy Johnson was a name I recognized from another favorite mob movie, "Hoodlum". "American Gangster" starts off with him as an elder figure on the Harlem scene. Lucas is his quiet driver and is with him when he passes. You get the distinct feeling Lucas is one of those folks who absorbs behaviors, actions, techniques, etc. like a sponge. It is never spoken, but it is implied and inevitable that Lucas would become the heir to Bumpy's throne. The difference being that Frank's innovative thinking allows him to take Bumpy's "business" to heights never before imagined.
It is often portrayed in several gangster flicks how important family is to the mob figures. However, it is always seen from the aspect of their nuclear families and the crime synd icate that is so close to them they consider them family. Lucas took it to the next level by combining the two. Part of the reason he was able to succeed was he surrounded himself with people he could trust: his own family. His younger brothers and cousins were more than happy to get on board and help him build and secure his empire.
Something that stood out about this film is how it wasn't one-sided in its reflection of that lifestyle. Of course we get to see how Lucas has positioned himself to live lavishly on sprawling acres in a large home. That's the glorious side that all the materialistic people envy. "American Gangster" also goes to the down-trodden lives of the users. I especially like the way they show the scenes back-to-back. Right after witnessing Frank living large, we see an infant crying as a strung out mother overdoses. It does an excellent job of putting things in perspective.
This isn't your typical mobster movie either. The name itself would lead you to believe there would be non-stop action. "American Gangster" is probably one of the more cerebral gangster movies I have ever seen. There is very little focus on the bloodshed associated with the life. They instead focus on the relationships built both with family and with associates. Even when Lucas and Roberts meet for the first time at a most uneventful moment, you can see a mutual respect that neither want to admit but both realize is there.
What I expected was a more sophisticated version of "Training Day". Instead of a rogue cop, Denzel would be a full-fledged criminal only much more finessed. That's precisely what it was only with more of a dramatic flair. Crowe and Denzel once again showed that they can make any character their own as their adaptations inspire you to want to learn more about their real-life counterparts. I couldn't imagine anyone else in either part. The way they shine in their respective roles is just...well, it's straight gangster.
My rating: A-