"American Gangster" is based on the true life rise and fall of drug dealer Frank Lucas. Screenwriter Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List", "Gangs of New York") based his script on the New York magazine article, "The Return of Superfly", by Mark Jacobson who was introduced to the real Frank Lucas by Nicholas Pileggi, an executive producer on the film and author of Wiseguys, the book on which "Goodfellas" was based. "Gangster" has had a long, hard road to get to the big screen. Directors such as Antoine Fuqua, Peter Berg and Brian De Palma have all been attached at one point or another. Terry George was once on board and looked to re-team with his "Hotel Rwanda" star Don Cheadle who would have played Lucas. Denzel Washington bounced off and back onto the project when Ridley Scott finally signed on the dotted line. Scott brought Russell Crowe with him, making this their third picture together after "Gladiator" and "A Good Year."
"American Gangster" follows the parallel stories of Frank Lucas (Washington), a criminal figure from North Carolina now living in Harlem, and New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Crowe). The film bounces back and forth as we follow their lives and the inevitable collision between the two. According to Zaillian, he wrote "Gangster" as two scripts, one from each man's point of view then melded them together. Their screen time may be about equal, but it is Washington as Lucas that truly dominates the picture. At the start of the film, Lucas is the driver and bodyguard for Harlem crime boss, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III), who dies from a heart attack.
Having sat under the learning tree of Johnson, Lucas applies the skills passed onto him by his mentor to assume his position as the new head man. However, Lucas changes things up in one major way. Johnson dealt heroin supplied to him by the Italian Mafia. Lucas decides to cut out the middle man and buy his drugs directly from the source. He calls up his cousin Nate (Roger Guenveur Smith), an Army NCO stationed in Bangkok, to hook him up with a Chinese general (Ric Young). Together, they bribe the right people and smuggle the heroin inside the caskets of dead servicemen shipped home from Vietnam. Cutting out the middleman, Lucas is able to lower his prices below that of his competition. His heroin, now dubbed "Blue Magic," is pure and undiluted, thus becoming extremely popular in no time. It also leads to numerous overdoses due to its potency.
With business booming, Lucas calls upon the only people he can trust, his family. He moves his brothers and cousins to the big city and buys his mother (Ruby Dee in an Oscar nominated role) a huge mansion in a ritzy neighborhood. He sets up small businesses for each of his brothers to act as storefronts for distribution of his product. Lucas even strikes a deal with Mafia boss Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante), a member of the very group he's muscling out, to upgrade his operations on a national level. He even falls in love with a beauty queen in Miss Puerto Rico, Eva (Lymari Nadal). Life is most definitely good for Frank Lucas.
Meanwhile, Detective Roberts isn't having as swell of a time. He's locked in a nasty custody battle over his son with ex-wife Laurie (Carla Gugino). Roberts' partner, Javier Rivera (John Ortiz), is a junkie and they've both become pariahs in the corrupt department for turning in nearly a million dollars in cash. All the while, he's trying to pass the bar exam. Roberts is eventually put in charge of creating a special task force to make major arrests in the drug trade. Passing through the lives of both men is Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), who wants a big piece of the action and acts as an antagonist to both men. Lucas pops up on the radar of both Roberts and Trupo when he disobeys one of his most ardent rules, never draw attention. From Johnson, he learned to dress conservatively and businessman-like. However, it's when he takes his wife out on the town, dressed in an expensive fur coat, and sitting in the second row of the Ali-Frazier fight that people want to know who this unknown is. Thus, it is one fateful mistake that leads to the tumbling of Frank Lucas and his empire.
"American Gangster" doesn't break the mold when it comes to the genre of the crime picture. The film definitely has echoes of other pictures such as "Scarface" and "The French Connection." Crowe as the honest cop battling against police corruption feels very much like "Serpico" as well as "Prince of the City", both directed by Sidney Lumet. The angle of two powerful men on opposite sides of the law who eventually come together in begrudging respect has been seen as well in Michael Mann's "Heat." However, each of these elements come together really well for "American Gangster." The film has an almost 3-hour runtime, but it never feels that long. There's not a moment that drags. Zaillian does a fine job in balancing the personal lives of Roberts and Lucas. Roberts has a strained relationship with his ex due to his frequent womanizing and she plans on moving to Las Vegas with their son. Though in real life, this was not the case and Roberts didn't have any children at the time. At the same time, Lucas has all the semblance of a family man. He has large family get-togethers, he takes care of his elderly mother, and he loves his wife. He has a huge Thanksgiving dinner while Roberts dines alone on tuna sandwiches. For their own good, Roberts is eventually able to let go of his family, while Lucas clings to his and drags them down with him.
The movie really hinges on the performances of its leads. Both Crowe and Washington's acting is strong. Washington has a commanding screen presence that is rare to find in many actors. Every time he pops into a scene, he draws attention to himself. He has that same intense and menacing demeanor that was put on display in other films like "Training Day" and "Man on Fire." It's almost become old hat for the man. Perhaps, a bigger challenge for Denzel would be to play a mild-mannered accountant or an agoraphobic shut-in. The filmmakers managed to back up their stars with a stellar supporting cast. They collected some great actors for roles that essentially mount to cameo appearances. The best performance comes from Josh Brolin as the dirty Trupo. 2007 was one hell of a year for Brolin who bolstered his resume with "Gangster", "In the Valley of Elah", "Grindhouse", and "No Country for Old Men." Brolin seems to be the heir apparent to William Forsythe as the go-to man for scumbag characters. An actor I always enjoy seeing is Denzel's co-star from "Inside Man", Chiwetel Ejiofor, plays Lucas's brother and right-hand man, Huey Lucas. Other cast members include; rapper Common as another of Lucas's brothers; John Hawkes, Wu Tang Clan's RZA, and Yul Vazquez as Roberts' task force; Ted Levine as Roberts' superior Captain Toback; KaDee Strickland as Roberts' divorce attorney; and Jon Polito and Joe Morton as other criminal figures. Most surprising is Cuba Gooding Jr. as Lucas' rival Nicky Barnes. Apparently, Gooding decided to take a break from starring in classics like "Boat Trip" and "Daddy Day Care" to slum a little.
This 2-disc set comes with both the theatrical version of the film and an unrated, extended cut that's nearly twenty minutes longer. I couldn't tell you every scene that was added. There is a brief flashback from Lucas about his time with Bumpy Johnson that wasn't in the theatrical cut. Most significantly, the extended version adds in an epilogue with Lucas and Roberts, who became friends in real life. I thought the theatrical ending capped off the film in a poignant manner and the new ending feels unnecessary.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is really clean, but "American Gangster" isn't a bright and colorful film. The look is gritty and the colors are muted. Much like he did with "Zodiac", cinematographer Harris Savides does a fantastic job in capturing the atmosphere of the era.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 with an optional French dubbed language track also in 5.1. The dialogue comes in crisp and clear and so does the film's score and soundtrack.
Disc 1 features an audio commentary track with director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steve Zaillian. The two were recorded separately and edited together. As such, the two participants sometimes repeat information the other just mentioned. Zaillian discusses writing the script along with events that really did happen and others that were fictionalized. Scott takes up the majority of the track. He's a bit dry in his delivery, but he's got a lot to talk about. He describes technical stuff about shooting the picture, working with the actors, how the project came together, locations, and even his and Denzel's love of Cuban cigars.
The rest of the extras can be found on Disc 2 with the biggest being an in-depth, making-of documentary called Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster. The documentary is split into five chapters which can be played together or separately.
The first chapter is "Tru Blu: The Real Story" (21:20) which features interviews with the cast and crew along with the real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. This initial segment goes into the development of the project, the real life events that the film was based on, and everyone's impressions upon meeting each other.
"Killer Threads: Costumes" (11:18) focuses on costume designer Janty Yates. She and the cast and crew discuss faithfully capturing the fashion of the 70's. The actors come to the agreement that clothes really do make the man.
"Crime War: Production" (20:54) focuses on the actual shooting of the picture and the on-location filming that was done.
"Into the Arena: Ali vs. Frazier" (8:15) takes a look at recreating the famous Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden. The filmmakers went all out on the details. They looked at photos and got extras to look and dress like the actual crowd as well as hiring lookalikes of the celebrities in attendance.
"Rhythm of the Street: Sound, Music, and Editing" (15:53) finishes off the documentary with a look at putting together the soundtrack and score as well as cutting the picture.
Case Files are three video diaries that make us the fly on the wall.
"Script Meeting" (8:13) puts us into the board room with Ridley Scott and Richie Roberts on a conference call with Steve Zaillian as they discuss the scripts and revisions.
"Heroin Test Show & Tell" (8:57) follows Scott as he meets with technical advisors who show him the ins and outs of testing heroin purity.
"Setting Up the Takedown" (7:45) focuses on the filming of the movie's climax.
Rounding out the extras is a pair of deleted scenes that include an alternate opening and a scene depicting Frank & Eva's wedding.
A 3-Disc Collector's Edition which contains another disc of extras and a collectible booklet is also available.
I selected "American Gangster" as my top for DVD Town's year end list. At the time, there were several more pictures that I hadn't had a chance to see yet. One of them was "There Will Be Blood" which has since become my new pick for best film of 2007. That's not a knock against "American Gangster"; it took one amazing movie to replace it in the top slot. "Gangster" is still one of the best films of 2007. A dark crime film that's rich and absorbing in every scene.