True crime movies often play with the conceit that the folks on the side of the law are protagonists, but American Gangster dispenses with that right from the start. While Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the detective, is a doughy absentee father with stage fright, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the gangster, is a driven and articulate family man. He may be unstable and prone to sudden acts of over the top violence, but the movie wants us to see the heroin kingpin as an innovative businessman.
You see, under the tutelage of his old boss, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) Lucas realized that the surest route to low prices and a veritable heroin â€œsupermarketâ€ is to cut out the middle man. So he treks to Thailand and makes a deal with a drug kingpin to directly import hundreds of kilograms pure heroin into the United States, said kilograms being transported hidden in the coffins of dead soldiers.
This allows Lucasâ€™ product, Blue Magic, to hit the streets at half the cost, but twice the power. If this sounds like an advertising pitch, youâ€™ve got the gist. Lucas likens his brand power with Pepsi, and viciously defends the trademark, threatening a colleague (a wasted Cuba Gooding, Jr.) with severe bodily harm when the name is co-opted.
The police are just as corrupt as the drug runners. Typified by slimy cop on the take Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), they are all too willing to look the other way as long as they get enough graft to supply them with gaudy jewelry and muscle cars. Roberts, on the other hand, is so honest that he derailed his career turning in a million dollars worth of unmarked cash. It isnâ€™t all bad; Richie ends up heading a new drug enforcement office to go after the kingpins. This leads to the requisite scene where he gets chewed out by a superior for attempting to follow his instincts, ignores the rebuke, and gets the damning evidence he was after.
This leads to the inevitable raid on the house where the drugs are processed and this is a brilliant extended action sequence. Ridley Scott is really in his element here, building the tension layer by layer until everything explodes in a hail of gunfire. While the raid is chaotic, unlike the Bourne movies, we can always follow whatâ€™s going on.
Unfortunately, American Gangster continues the trend of runtime bloat at 157 minutes. There are subplots involving Robertsâ€™ ex-wife taking his son to Vegas and his ex-partner becoming a junkie that could be jettisoned without adversely affecting the narrative. Some streamlining would increase the tension.
Also padding the length are several attempts to show the destructive ripple effects of the heroin trade, but these lurid and grisly scenes of junkies getting high feel trite and tacked on. While the audience craves some balance between the dapper image of Lucas and his systematic destruction of Harlem, these lurid scenes arenâ€™t the way to do it.
Yet the movie doesnâ€™t spend any real time worrying about that, instead concerning itself with the charismatic performance of Denzel Washington. In recent stories, it has been revealed that the story is â€œ1% reality and 99% Hollywood.â€ To make such a reprehensible criminal likable, it would have to be.
 Although, Cuba Gooding, Jr. has done a good job of wasting himself. If you don’t believe me, check out Boat Trip or Snow Dogs. I double dare you.