This came out in 2007 and has been streaming on Hulu for several weeks. I decided to take a look and ended up investing 2 hours and 38 minutes watching it. It’s American Gangster, featuring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. It didn’t take long to spot this as a meld of Goodfellas and The French Connection. It’s about (see the title) an American gangster, in this case real-life Frank Lucas. From a quick review I get the idea the plot roughly follows the crime career of Frank Lucas. The screen shots are from Hulu. Details are from Wikipedia. Here’s the cast:
The opening shot shows somebody tied up in a chair. It appears he is being water-boarded. Somebody is pouring water all over him, while he’s screaming. Now we realize it’s not water. It’s gasoline. Frank Lucas has a lesson he wants to teach people who get out of line. He flicks a flaming piece of paper on the man, who bursts into flames. The man screams for a few seconds before Lucas kicks the chair over and shoots him dead.
Next we see gang boss Bumpy Johnson dispensing largess from the back of a truck in a Harlem (New York) street, where his downtrodden constituents give him rave reviews. That happy scene changes swiftly as Bumpy takes his driver Frank Lucas aside to explain what is wrong with modern cities. Neighborhoods have lost their identity. Small shops, owned by people who live on the same street and who work there, are being replaced by business run by large corporations, by people who don’t live in the neighborhood. This is 1968, and Martin Luther King is already dead, killed by a sniper in Memphis, Tennessee. Bumpy takes Frank into one of the new stores. Nobody there is from the neighborhood. Gone is the community. Then Bumpy dies of a hear attack in the store, and Frank figures to take over his empire.
He takes inspiration for his business model from Bumpy’s advice. Vice in the neighborhood is owned by the Italian mobs. Drugs on the street pass through multiple layers before being injected into the bodies of Harlem junkies. Frank concludes what is needed is local management and vertical integration. He will personally run the whole operation from top to bottom.
Meanwhile, his nemesis is germinating in the form of a, rare, honest cop. Detective Roberts is taking classes to become a lawyer with the idea of moving up in the world. Meanwhile, he and his partner, Detective Rivera, are watching some business going down in a parking lot. Some suspicious characters leave something in a car. They investigate and discover hundreds of thousands of dollars in street bills. Against his partner’s advice, Roberts insists on taking it down to the station.
This is a bad move. This is free cash that could have been distributed, according to seniority, to any number of members of the New York police force. Roberts becomes a pariah in the department. Later, when Rivera, who is, himself a junkie, murders a dealer, and Roberts needs to extricate him from a hostile neighborhood, the dispatcher will not send backup.
Lucas figures to solve the problem of inferior drugs by getting his supply from the source. The Vietnam War is in progress, and 500,000 American troops are stationed in Vietnam and Thailand. Thousands enter and exit the region on a daily basis. It is an excellent supply route from the heroin producers of Thailand. Lucas travels to Thailand, where he hooks up with an American Army sergeant. Together they trek into the hot zone, where the poppies are grown and where the drug is refined.
His business model is an instant success. Selling “Blue Magic” trade-marked heroin at below the competition’s prices, Lucas takes over the trade in the New York City area. He purchases a large country estate for his extended family from low rent North Carolina and moves everybody in. He recruits his five brothers as partners in the business. His scheme is that blood loyalty will protect his enterprise from police infiltration. And that works, for a while.
Back in Harlem, he impresses his brothers with the seriousness of their business. He had heretofore been squeezed by the street enforcer of the legacy gang. The unfortunate pictured here previously demanded 20% of Lucas’ action—insulting and also above the established market. As Lucas and his brothers are enjoying lunch, Lucas spots the enforcer on the street, pressing a local business for the money. Lucas leaves his brothers, who watch from the restaurant, and he strides up to the enforcer, confronts him, and shoots him dead in front of a large crowd. Then he rejoins his brothers. Nobody bothers him. There’s a new sheriff in town.
Lucas operates outside the model of the old Harlem mob. He wears a suit, not flashy, and gives all the appearance of a local businessman. He insists others in his gang do likewise, adopting a low profile. When brother Huey shows up wearing the 1970s equivalent of a zoot suit, Lucas takes him down a peg, asking him why he wants to walk around saying “arrest me.” Lucas marries stunning Eva from Puerto Rico.
But matters begin to go bad for Lucas. Roberts is recruited from the NYPD into a federal investigative unit and concentrates on finding who is behind Blue Magic. He begins to zero in on the Lucas brothers. His group keeps an eye on them, and in a case-breaking event, they see Huey chase a woman out into the street and shoot her. They now have leverage into the Lucas operation.
At the same time the local police are putting the squeeze on Lucas. He’s not paying his share, and this upsets Detective Nick Trupo, who wants to keep the Lucas operation thriving as a steady source of income to the corrupt police. Lucas strikes back, fire bombing Trupo’s car in front of his house to send a message.
But Roberts’ crew eavesdrops on a conversation between Huey and Lucas (in Thailand). It’s 1975, and American forces are coming home. The Blue Magic supply line is about to be shut down. Instructions are in code, but Roberts translates the dialog into the tail number of an Army C-130 transport arriving in Elizabeth City, New Jersey. His group is ready with a search warrant when the plane arrives.
But they can’t find the shipment on the plane. They even open caskets of American bodies being returned to the States but find nothing. Roberts’ commander is incensed. They have desecrated the bodies of these soldiers and have nothing to show for it. Also, black guys doing this stuff? Not Italians? Where’s the Italian connection? Only the Italians do this stuff, not black guys. What is Roberts thinking? He’s a disgrace.
But Roberts persists. He decides the shipment is in the caskets, and his men follow the vans taking them away. At a point the caskets are opened, and the bodies are transferred to burial coffins. The caskets leave by a separate van. The crooks take the caskets to a building, where they open them and unseal compartments in the bottoms. They pack a shipment of heroin into plastic trash bags and cart the bags over to a waiting truck. Roberts’ group follows the truck, which goes to Lucas’ packaging plant.
In a dramatic raid guns blaze, crooks die, and the packaging manager ends up on the sidewalk on his back, staring into the muzzle of a shotgun.
Lucas is in church, and as he leaves he is faced with a street full of police cars and nobody else around.
Lucas tempts Roberts with a deal. Any amount of money. Roberts places a counter offer. The whole gang and all others who can be snared. A closing note says that Lucas received 70 years. But Roberts quit the police and became a lawyer. He represented Lucas and got his sentence reduced to 15 years. Eva went back Puerto Rico.
Meanwhile, Detective Trupo sees what’s going on. Knowing that Lucas is going down, and the money pot is about to dry up, New York police raid Lucas’ mansion looking for the getaway stash that gangsters keep for such emergencies. They tear the place apart and finally locate the dough under a doghouse, after shooting the dog.
Three fourths of the New York City’s drug enforcement agency was convicted of related crimes. We see Dozens of police being arrested and packed into vans. We see Detective Trupo sitting in a lawn chair in his back yard and placing his service pistol under his chin before pulling the trigger. Justice is truly served.
With 158 minutes worth of celluloid, there is obviously more. What I’m not showing is Detective Roberts’ family life coming apart, his wife suing for divorce and taking his son to Las Vegas. We see Roberts humping his lady divorce lawyer on the kitchen counter when he gets a phone call that his partner has died from an overdose of Blue Magic. We see naked women processing the heroin (sorry, Steve). They are naked to make sure they don’t steal any of the stuff. Also, I’m thinking if you don’t get any of the powder on your clothes, it’s going to be easy to test clean when you get back out on the street.
But wait! There are plot failures. The cops raid the C-130, and don’t find the dope. The crooks, enormously stupid, believe they are home free, and they proceed to carry the caper to the end. Don’t they know that by now there is a cop behind every trash can? Who believes this?
Besides, in real life the drugs were not in the caskets, but in the pallets under them. It’s Hollywood, people.
Contrary to the movie, Roberts had no children.
The drama is tense and doesn’t let up from beginning to end. The plot does not line up perfectly with the actual story, but it’s worth a watch.