Since I had Monday off from my day job, I decided to go and see American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, two actors who I admire enormously for their talent. Whether or not the movie is any good, they always give consistently top notch performances. And Ridley Scott is always an interesting director. However, I was quite disappointed by this movie.
The movie is based on the life of drug-kingpin-turned-informant, Frank Lucas, who grew up in North Carolina where he watched as his cousin was shot by the Klan for looking at a white girl. He eventually made his way to Harlem where he became a heroin kingpin by traveling to Asia's Golden Triangle to make connections, shipping heroin back to the US in the coffins of soldiers killed in Vietnam. According to him, he was soon making upwards of one million dollars a day in drug sales. Lucas was shadowed by lawman, Richie Roberts, who finally helped bring the him to justice. The two then worked together to expose the crooked cops who made importing heroin so easy.
There was something that bothered me while I was watching this movie. Despite the scenes that showed how destructive heroin is and the damage Lucas was doing by importing the drug, the movie makers try to make him seem like some kind of saint. And Russell Crowe's character Richie Roberts is so thinly fleshed out, he might as well be cardboard. Seriously they try to show him as flawed by having scenes with his ex-wife where she accuses him of being a liar and a cheat, but we don't really see enough of why his personal life is so messy. I mean he manages to get a law degree, and of course he's an honest cop who won't take a million dollars in drug money that he and his partner find, despite the fact that it ruins their reputation in the police department for being clean cops.
Not to mention the scene where he emotionally decides to give up fighting for custody or visitation rights with his kid (actually you're never really sure why they are in court.) Carla Gugino was as wasted as his wife as she was in Night at the Museum.
They also make it seem like it was a breeze for Frank Lucas to import heroin into the USA. He was one of those 'Eureka' light bulb over the head moments while watching a news report about American soldiers getting heavily addicted to heroin while overseas in Vietnam. Like this never even occured to the Italian Mafia who had been importing heroin into the country ever since the end of prohibition.
Yes, Frank Lucas takes care of his family and buys them a house but it's not from altruistic motives. As he explains it in a magazine article, because they were from the country, not savvy NYC thugs, they wouldn't be tempted to steal from him. He could control them was the reason that he brought them up to New York and involved them in the business. Yeah, really kind and sweet to get your family involved in your drug business.
The weirdest part of the movie is where Richie Roberts busts Frank and then in the next scene he's prosecuting him as an attorney. It was a totally What the hell? moment in the film. I mean we know he passed the bar, but when did he quit being a cop and go to work for the DA's office? And wouldn't that be a conflict of interest, busting a guy and then prosecuting him, since he had inside information about the crime?
Of course, being the history geek that I am, I had to search the Internet for information of the real Frank Lucas. And from what I read, including interviews with Frank and his own daughter, American Gangster is a complete crock. The real Frank Lucas is a cocky, arrogant SOB, who brags about his life as a gangster, and who completely exaggerated his relationship with Bumpy Johnson. The idea of smuggling heroin into the states wasn't just his idea. His cousin was already actively dealing drugs in Vietnam. Despite the evidence that he informed not just on crooked cops but on his fellow drug dealers, he denies it. Also, his wife Julie (who is called Eva in the film) was not so innocent. She spent time in jailing for helping him smuggle drugs.
And Richie Roberts didn't single-handedly take down Frank Lucas the way it appears in the movie. His part was only peripheral at best. In fact, the Richie Roberts character in the movie is an amalgamation of several law enforcement officials.
I do however applaud the filmmakers for their ability to recreate 1970's New York considering all the changes the city has gone through. If you didn't know the city, you wouldn't realize that the scene where Bumpy dies is actually on Broadway and 137th Street, not 8th Avenue. Oh and by the way, Bumpy didn't die in an appliance store but at a waffle house, and Frank Lucas was not there (shades of Jesse Jackson claiming to have held Martin Luther King in his arms as he died which is not true).
Once again the real story of Frank Lucas is so much more interesting and gritty than the Hollywood whitewash. And since the movie is almost 3 hours long, it's not as if they didn't have time to develop these characters. While it was nice to see Armand Assante and Josh Brolin, I had no idea who these characters were supposed to be other than cultured gangster and crooked cop. And Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted as Nicky Barnes.
I got more of a sense of the war on drugs from Traffic than I did from this film. In fact, I would recommend that people read both New York magazine articles on Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas than to waste $11.75 to see this film.
Thanks for reading,