It’s the late ‘60s in Harlem, New York and Frank Lucas (Washington) is the quiet unassuming chauffeur and confidante to one of the city's leading black crime bosses “Bumpy” Johnson (Williams). When Johnson suddenly dies of a heart attack, Lucas quickly takes over his operation seizing the opportunity to build his own empire by cutting out the middleman and importing pure heroin directly from Southeast Asia and selling at below-market prices. As his reputation grows, Narcotics lawman Richie Roberts (Crowe) becomes obsessed and determined to bring Lucas to justice through any means necessary.
A fact-based drama about one of the most complex and contradictory figures of the ‘70s, “American Gangster” heads straight for the jugular with a violent opening as Lucas pours petrol over a drug rival, sets him alight and finishes him off with several rounds of ammunition. With its poetically heightened dialogue, its fascination with the mechanics of crime and corruption, it’s a likeable and entertaining flick which teeters on the brink of being a classic but is bogged down by unwarranted scenes and excessive story telling. The first hour is spent jumping between Lucas’ life which is far more exciting to Robert’s mundane one which consists of divorce proceedings and custody battles with his wife. One’s a charismatic killer and drug peddler and the other is an honest and moralistic law enforcer who turns in a million dollars of drug money discovered in the trunk of a car but thinks nothing of cheating on his wife. Even though both are on opposite sides of the spectrum there are huge similarities between the pair as they seem to share a special code of work ethics and honor. “AG” picks up steam once again as the net closes in for Lucas and continues to the final act and showdown when the two adversaries finally occupy screen time together. With talents like Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Lucas’ brother and Idris Elba, a rival drug dealer “AG” also suffers from a case of cast over load with both actors and others such Common, T.I. and RZA given little opportunity to aptly display their acting chops.
Despite its minimal flaws, it brilliantly weaves in elements of other mob crime flicks such as “Scarface,” “Serpico,” “Godfather” and “The Untouchables” and should easily earn Washington an Oscar nod for his phenomenal and mesmerizing portrayal of Lucas. There are also powerful performances by Ruby Dee as Lucas' mother and Cuba Gooding Jr., who audiences last saw lolling on the grass with a bunch of 5th graders in “Daddy Day Camp.” Gooding plays a fellow Harlem drug dealer called ‘Mr. Untouchable’ Nicky Barnes who, like Lucas, was eventually prosecuted for federal and state drug violations but testified against several cohorts and corrupt officers in order to reduce his sentence.
With an excellent depiction of the seediest aspects of the American underworld, the perils of drug trafficking and graphic scenes of substance abuse “AG” isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s definitely engrossing and entertaining and comes exceptionally close to being a classic.