‘American Gangster’ is new American gangster classic

The new film adds ’70s heroin hustler Frank Lucas to the list of immortalized gangsters.

Megan Kadrmas

Two men, parallel lives, different outcomes. Sort of.

“American Gangster”

Directed By: Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe
Rated: R
Showing at: Area Theaters

Director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian crafted the two main characters in the new epic drama “American Gangster,” using this age-old story-telling device to capture and hold the audience’s attention through the considerably long blockbuster. In the process, they practically ripped a page out of “Hamlet.”

First, there is Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a heroin drug lord who rose from relative obscurity in the New York corruption scene to owning the town, all in a few short years. He’s a clean-cut, quiet, patient gentleman who is completely loveable in every way except for the seedy, corrupt and violent way he earns a living.

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Megan also reviews Jay-Z’s original soundtrack, “American Gangster,” on the A&E blog.

Based on the life events of the real Frank Lucas, “American Gangster” is set during the Vietnam War. Lucas used the war to gain direct access to a heroin manufacturer in rural Bangkok and then used the U.S. military to ship huge quantities home, hidden in soldiers’ caskets.

When Lucas hits the streets with purer heroin for half the going street price, he rises from relative gangster obscurity to the most powerful drug lord in New York in a matter of months. Scott wisely chooses to focus a great part of the film on Lucas’ rise from lackey to overlord and the personal changes this career move demands.

In a defining character moment of “American Gangster,” Lucas brings his brothers up from the South and takes them out to breakfast. As he gives the generic “family first” speech that occurs in all decent gangster flicks, he sees a rival drug boss walking down the street. As his brothers, who know nothing about his business at this point, watch on, Lucas blows the man’s brains out and then calmly steps back inside the restaurant and returns to his seat to finish his monologue.

In the opposing corner is New York detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an undercover detective from Jersey struggling through law school at night and a dispassionate divorce on his days off.

In a time when corruption swept New York’s police ranks and heroin plagued the projects, Roberts is one of the few clean, honest cops left. He’s essentially a failure in everything but his career. He lives in a dirty apartment, eats a makeshift tuna salad sandwich alone on Thanksgiving, is a deadbeat dad and struggles embarrassingly through law school.

The good-bad and the bad-good meet when Lucas becomes New York’s biggest drug lord. Upright Roberts is assigned to lead a drug task force in the Big Apple, which eventually leads him to Lucas.

Although set in the past, “American Gangster” gets help from a handful of modern-day hip-hop artists. The noticeable presence of hip-hop in the film is understandable and appropriate, since hip-hop is a culture in which gangsters of yore, like Scarface and The Godfather, are upheld as ideal examples of masculinity and street success.

During the construction of his drug empire, Lucas recruits his family, which includes rappers Common and T.I., who play father and son, respectively. Although bound by limited roles, both rappers succeed in shedding their public hip-hop personas and really becoming their characters. T.I., especially, was better than expected, leaving one wishing to see more of his fast-talking, youthful character.

Richards gets some help in bringing Lucas down from Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, who was a wonderful surprise in the film. RZA was easy to spot in the first briefing scene, where he wears an undershirt that prominently displays his Wu tattoo. (Who knew Wu-Tang existed in 1970?) Although usually relegated to minor roles, like in “Ghost Dog” and “Derailed,” RZA pops up often during the second part of “American Gangster,” with a consistently entertaining performance throughout.

“American Gangster,” as a whole, gets a publicity boost and some extra street cred from the living legend of hip-hop himself, Jay-Z, who released an album Tuesday that serves as the soundtrack to the film.

Like Hamlet and Fortinbras, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts are destined to meet and, consequently, the audience is forced to decide who should be the victor – the drug lord family man or the pathetic dead-beat cop.

This is what keeps people awake during the long “American Gangster,” not excessive explosions and violence. To be sure, these elements do exist in the film, but they play a supporting role to the more complex character battle unfolding onscreen.