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American Gangster
The rise and fall of a street corner legend.
American Gangster
Denzel Washington Stars in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster".
OPENING WEEKEND: $28,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $78,000,000
OTHER PREVIEWS: Alatriste (7/10)
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

June 25th, 2007: American Gangster is the biopic of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a self-driven black man who escaped the segregation era south to become a drug kingpin in Harlem. Lucas started out as a driver for a mobster and learned the ropes. When his patron died, Lucas seized the opportunity to build his empire by smuggling cheap, high quality heroin in the coffins of soldiers that died in Vietnam. This movie will examine the parallels between Lucas and the cop that finally took him down, Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), both of whom managed to stick to their own personal code of ethics despite the greed and corruption around them.

What to Expect: How do you tell the story of Frank Lucas? Do you tell the story of Frank the drug dealing, greedy, murdering sociopath? Do you tell the story of Frank's rise from nothing, to one of the most powerful men in NY, who never forgot his roots and took care of everyone around him? Do you tell the story Frank the charismatic and shrewd businessman who built an empire playing a white man's game during the height of the civil rights movement? How do you balance all of these seemingly paradoxical qualities that exist inside of Lucas and, to a lesser extent, every one of us? Well, let us examine the circumstances and qualities that made Frank Lucas the legend worthy of having his story told.

Article continues below

On the one hand, Lucas was a ruthless drug lord. He imported tons of heroin into the United States in the coffins of soldiers who had died fighting for their country. This heroin went on to destroy the lives of countless numbers of people. In fact, in the late 60's and early 70's, half of the heroin addicts in the US lived in NY and three-quarters of those were in Harlem, with Lucas being their largest supplier. Furthermore, to build and maintain his drug empire, Lucas and his crew, the Country Boys, killed scores of men in turf battles and money disputes.

Yet, on the other hand, there is Lucas the brilliant entrepreneur, who with no education or formal training created a huge empire. The first thing Lucas did was create a vertical monopoly on the heroin business. For those of you who are not fresh on your micro economics, a vertical monopoly is created when a single owner controls all of its suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors of a single product. Lucas accomplished this by controlling the import, manufacturing (cutting with mixing agent), packaging and distribution of his product. He even created his own brand of heroin: Blue Magic. This little enterprise netted him an alleged one million dollars a day in profits, of course the real number is very hard to gauge since he did not file taxes or put out a corporate balance sheet. With his huge profits, Lucas expanded his empire into legitimate enterprises including housing developments and a chain of dry cleaners. At its height, the Country Boys had a business model that rivaled the greats like Rockefeller and Bill Gates in its efficiency and profitability.

The Gates/Rockefeller parallel is not just limited to a good corporate plan. Lucas, like Rockefeller, was a great philanthropist and leader. While his crew of thugs was dealing heroin on the street corner, Lucas was actively involved in the Harlem community and the civil rights movement. He endowed huge amounts of money to build affordable housing and to feed the poor. He supported the civil rights movement and was a leader to his people using his money and charisma to further the cause of equality. In fact, Lucas was openly accepted in most social circles despite his occupations, rubbing elbows with politicians, civic leaders, police officers and celebrities. One of his closest friends was heavy weight champion Joe Lewis. Even Judge Johnson, the man who put most of the Country Boys behind bars, still calls Lucas once in a while just to see how he is doing.

So how do you reconcile the many faces of Frank Lucas? The studios, Universal and Imagine Entertainment, struggled mightily to answer that question. In 2000, Universal purchased the rights to a New York Magazine article about Frank Lucas entitled "The Return of the Superfly" and hired Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, Mission Impossible) to write a script based on the article. He interpreted the story as one of "American business and race", focusing the script thematically on corporate business. In spring 2004 production was slated to begin with Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) after negotiations fell through with Brian De Palma (Scarface, Carlito's Way). Denzel Washington was signed to star and it was slated to be released in spring 2005 with a working title of Tru Blu. Then, in fall 2004, Fuqua abruptly abandoned the project citing creative differences with the studio. It is rumored he did not really want to make a race movie. At this point, with no director and a sky rocketing budget, Universal abandoned the project.

In spring 2005 the project was revived. Terry George (Hotel Rwanda) was hired to redo Zaillian's script and Don Cheadle was approached to replace Denzel Washington as the star. It is pretty obvious that Terry George had a lot to do with this choice based on their previous work together. Now, I love Don Cheadle, he has done some brilliant work, but I think he lacks the charisma and screen presence to bring Lucas to the big screen. Luckily the producers did not agree with Terry's vision and returned to Zaillian's original script. Ridley Scott was hired to direct Tru Blu, now called American Gangster. Although Ridley Scott does not have the extensive résumé in organized crime dramas like his predecessors, I believe he literally saved this project.

Ridley Scott brought the vision and direction this movie badly needed. He veered away from race as the central focus of the movie, instead focusing on the paradoxical values of Frank Lucas and Detective Richie Roberts. Zaillian was brought back to realize this new vision and rewrote the script accordingly. The director also brought back Denzel Washington and convinced Russell Crowe to take on the role of Roberts. Crowe who is notoriously difficult to cast these days, even turning down two movies with Nicole Kidman this year on the basis that he "does not do charity work for large studios," actually agreed to do American Gangster largely based on his prior experience with Scott on Gladiator. Both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe plunged head on into their characters by spending time with their real life counterparts. Washington even acquired the southern accent needed to portray Lucas. In the meantime, Crowe studied hours of tape of Richie to nail down the character's mannerisms and speech patterns. When it was time to finally start filming, both actors had the characters down to a T, and the attention to detail did not stop there. The movie was filmed in its entirety in the Harlem and Queens neighborhoods that Lucas controlled. The areas were meticulously transformed to look as they did in the 1970's. Over 70 costumes were worn by Washington during the course of the movie to portray the flamboyant feel of a 1970's drug lord and millionaire. Scott even brought in Marc Streitenfeld to do the music for this movie, and he used an 80 piece orchestra to provide an epic feel.

The one odd decision that Ridley Scott made was the casting of rappers T.I. and Rza in the movie. Both have done movies before with questionable results. I understand that T.I. and Rza both understand the street life, both having grown up in bad neighborhoods, but that does not make them good actors. I fear that their lack of acting ability will be glaringly obvious when they are on screen with two Oscar winners. I think Samuel L. Jackson put it best when asked about working with 50 Cent, "I don't try to rap; why do these guys try to act?." Well, as a saving grace, at least T.I. won't have any trouble with the southern accent since he was born and raised in Atlanta.

In Conclusion: What can I say? I cannot wait to see this movie! It is going to be a great mob movie with the turbulent Vietnam War/Civil Rights era as its backdrop. One of the most dynamic and enterprising criminals of our time is going to be brought to the big screen in a big way with the actors and director to make it work. I expect at least three Oscar nominations for this movie: best actor for Washington, best supporting actor for Crowe and best director for Scott. Although it will probably not make as much money because of its R rating and heavy content, it will still be an instant classic up there with Scarface and Goodfellas. If you like riveting crime dramas then this movie is a can't miss.

Similar Titles: Carlito's Way, Scarface, Training Day
November 2nd, 2007 (wide)
February 19th, 2008 (DVD)

Universal Pictures

Ridley Scott

Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, RZA, John Ortiz, John Hawkes, Ted Levine, Common, T.I.

Total: 514 vote(s).

Drama, Suspense

Click here to view site

Rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.

157 min





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