Thursday, July 2, 2020

American Gangster

American Gangster
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, Cuba Gooding Jr., John Hawkes, Carla Gugino, Idris Elba
Released: November 2, 2007
Viewed in theaters: November 7, 2007

Oscar nomination:
Best Supporting Actress - Ruby Dee (lost to Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton)
Best Achievement in Art Direction (lost to Sweeney Todd)

So after being nominated for Oscars in the same category (Best Actor) in two years (almost consecutive years; 1999 and 2001) and one being an extremely CLOSE race (I'm guessing!), Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star in a movie together in 2007, this one. But wait! There's a couple of caveats! (That might not be the right word...) First of all, this was NOT their first movie together. No, film nerds (or Denzel and Crowe fans) know that they starred in the 1995 (and truly terrible) film Virtuosity. I caught the last five minutes of it on TV once and even watching that, I could tell it was a terrible movie. This was before anyone knew who Russell Crowe was in the States. I'm not sure how much screen time they share in that movie, but I'm guessing it's more than the screen time they share in American Gangster! That's my second caveat. Are they really in the movie together if all of their scenes (except one at the end) are separate? You have one story with Denzel's character and one story with Crowe's character. It's kind of like when Pacino and De Niro were in Heat together and only had one scene together in the middle. (Well, I guess technically they had a scene together at the end, but there was't much conversing as they were trying to run away from/kill each other!) I would say the ratio for screen time is 60/40 in favor of Denzel, which makes sense, as the story is really about his character. He plays Frank Lucas, a real-life man who smuggled heroin from Southeast Asia into New York and made a butt load of money. He was the bodyguard, driver, and collector for Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson for fifteen years and after he died in the late '60s, Frank took over. He gets the idea for smuggling drugs when he's watching a news report about American troops becoming addicted to opium and heroin, which are "easily available and relatively cheap", that they get from Bangkok and Saigon. He learns that a "high purity of heroin is leading to an epidemic of heroin addiction among U.S. soldiers" and his eyes become dollar signs. He calls his cousin's husband who is in Bangkok and visits him there. He wants to take 100 kilos of heroin in the U.S. and wants to smuggle it in via helicopters. It's 100% pure heroin and Frank calls it Blue Magic (see, when I think of a drug with "blue" in the name, I think of meth! But maybe any drug that is of high quality appears blue? I really don't know anything about drugs or selling them!) Needless to say, business starts booming for Frank and he becomes even more powerful than he was before. One of the most well-known scenes in the movie is when he flat-out shoots Idris Elba in the head in broad daylight. Well, it was a dealer played by Idris Elba who owed Frank money, and Frank was sending a message to others when they don't give Frank what they owe.

Frank makes so much bank he is able to buy his mother (Ruby Dee) a mansion where they celebrate many holidays. Everything I learned about money laundering, I learned from Saul Goodman and Frank Lucas does not do a good job of laundering his money if he's flaunting it like this! He could probably take his own advice, which is what he tells his brother, Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) when he wears a super gaudy suit at a club: "The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room." There's a very Godfather Part II moment when he kisses him on the mouth and says, "If you weren't my brother, I'd kill you, you know that?" Oh, and if you happen to get blood all over his $25,000 alpaca rug, make sure you "blot that sh*t, don't rub it!"

At one of his clubs, he meets and falls in love with Eva, a young (much younger than him!) woman from Puerto Rico who won a beauty contest. When she meets Frank's mother, she calls Eva "an angel come down from heaven". Now that's a great mother-in-law to have. (Though of course they meet before she marries Frank).

On the day of his wedding, right after the ceremony, corrupt cop Trupo (Josh Brolin) confronts Frank and his new bride to "congratulate" him. He tells them he wants "his share" of ten grand at the first of each month and threatens him that he's "special" because he's with the Special Investigation Unit. As you may have guessed, this does not make Frank happy and he responds by leaving him a live turkey at his front door on Thanksgiving, then blowing up his prized car.

In a later scene of the same day, Trupo pulls over Frank and Huey, who tells Frank they have drugs in the trunk. Not surprisingly, Trupo checks the trunks and takes the drugs. The whole interaction between them is great. He asks Frank, "What are we going to do about this?' To which Frank replies, "We don't do s**t about it. We close it up, throw it back in the trunk, everybody goes home, have some pumpkin pie, warm apple cider." Trupo tells him, "I got a better idea. Or would you rather me throw you and your brother in the f***ing  river?" Of course Frank gets the last word in when he says, "Or would you rather your house blows up next time?" Ooh, snap. Since Huey is the one who stupidly left the drugs in the trunk and since they lost a lot of money when Trupo took them, Frank smashes Huey's head against the car window after they both get back inside and breaks the window. Frank may not kill his brother, but he will beat the crap out of him. He has quite the violent streak and if I were his wife, I would be a little scared. 

Speaking of his wife, the most Denzeliest line is when he exclaims, "They tried to kill my wife!" to mafia boss, Dominic Catanno, who had guaranteed him "piece of mind", but he replies, "I don't feel so peaceful" after he and his wife go out one night to get some takeout and when she stays in the car when he goes to get it, he sees someone driving by really fast and realizes what they're going to do and is able to run to his car and grab Eva before she can get shot. He doesn't know who tried to kill her. Was it the mob or was it fellow mobster Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.)?  Understandably, his wife wants to leave (preferably the country), but Frank refuses. 
Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the detective who is on the case to track down where the drugs are coming from. His story doesn't really become interesting until he figures out Frank Lucas is behind all of this. For instance, there's an ongoing story line where he and his wife (Carla Gugino) are going through a divorce, and, eh, I don't care. Every time he spoke, I could still hear a trace of his Australian accent, but when he was yelling his New York accent was quite good.

When we first meet him, he is a cop, but he's taking night classes because he wants to be a prosecutor even though he has a fear of public speaking. He and his parter find a million dollars in a trunk of an abandoned car which they got a tip about from a bookie. His partner doesn't want to turn the money in because they'll be pariahs and that, "Cops kill cops they can't trust." However, Richie does the right thing and turns in the money and is called a "f***ing Boy Scout (which is hilarious since it's Russell Crowe) and this becomes an ongoing storyline for him, how people can't believe he turned in the money. I have to wonder, would it be any better if he and his partner had kept the money?

When he is assigned to head the investigation of where the new drug is coming from, he meets his ragtag team which includes John Hawkes, who always seems to be chain-smoking (I think there's one scene where he isn't smoking!), and RZA from Wu-Tang Clan. He tells them their mandate is to make major arrests; they are looking for the suppliers and distributors, not just random "street guys." They discover the new drug called Blue Magic is twice the potency as the  regular stuff for only ten bucks on every street corner. Richie muses, "Who can afford to sell s**t twice as good for half as much?" Be patient, Richie. You'll meet this man soon. As Frank himself will say, he sells a product that's "better than the competition at a price that's lower than the competition."

Richie decides that the Narcotics Squad needs to start from scratch because they aren't getting anywhere. He "borrows" $20,000 from his boss where he pays someone at a Newark car wash to buy Blue Magic and he tells them it will be there tomorrow. When he and John Hawkes see the guy leave with the money, they follow him to see where he will take them. He's headed towards the city and John Hawkes isn't sure if they should follow him because the city is not in their jurisdiction, but Richie tells him to follow him because he wants to stay with the money that he's responsible for. Richie sees the guy enter some kind of fast food joint and just waits outside while he watches a group of men led by our corrupt cop, Trupo, take the bag with the money. He follows the men and stops them to tell them the money is registered and he needs it back. Trupo gives it back and says he can have the money "this time" and threatens him to never come into the city unannounced again.

Both Frank and Richie are at the Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier fight on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden. It was called the Fight of the Century so Richie figures anybody who's Anybody will be there. He notices Frank shaking Joe Frazier's hand and wearing a fur coat and sitting even closer than Dominic Cattano, the mafia boss, and takes picture of him, knowing that he's someone important. His team gets the plates of the limo he rode in. Frank is not only wearing a fur coat (a gift from his wife), but he's always wearing a fur cap that he doesn't take off. His wife was also wearing a fur coat, but at least she takes it off. Not only is this coat just the ugliest thing and make him look ridiculous and stick out (maybe he should take his own advice that he told his brother!), but I don't know how he can stand being in a crowded arena with that thing on! Gah! The flashy coat is how Trupo found out about Frank and started exhorting him, so he angrily throws it into the fire with his wife watching him right there. I mean, honestly, I hope he would have thrown that hideous thing in the fire regardless, but it was a little rude to do it in front of the person who gave it to him!

Richie's group gathers intel about Frank. They learn about his connection to Bumpy Johnson and that he has his brothers and cousins working for him. They check out his brothers at their jobs which are spread out across Jersey and the five boroughs - one works at a dry cleaners, one makes custom furniture, one works at a hardware store, and one works at body shop (Frank has a lot of brothers!). All of those businesses are distribution and collection points for Frank's drugs and money. They track Frank's moves and note that he gets up at five every morning, has breakfast at a diner in Harlem by himself, takes a meeting with the accountant of his lawyer, usually stays home in the evenings, and if he does go out, it's to one of his two clubs or to a handful of restaurants with his wife. He takes his mother to church every Sunday. He is never seen hanging out with any organized crime guys. As Richie notes, "Everything about Frank's life seems unpretentious, orderly, and legitimate." He doesn't think they're going to get informants inside the family.

They are able to obtain one of Frank's cousins, Jimmy, when they see him attempt to kill his girlfriend when they're having a fight outside their home and he shoots her, but doesn't kill her. They bring him in and tell him they have him for attempted murder which could be fifteen years in jail unless he helps them bring down Frank. They tell him he can avoid that if he straps a tape recorder to his body under his shirt (and remember, this is the early '70s, so this is a bulky piece of equipment..I'm surprise nobody even noticed!) He ends up recording a conversation when he's nearby  Huey who's at a payphone, calling Frank, who is in Bangkok at the time to set up more drug shipments. The only thing the Narcotics team hear Frank say is, "Newark, short term, parking lot three" and a plate number. They know whatever it is, it's where the drugs will be coming in. 

While all that is going on, Trupo and his men barge into the mansion where Frank's wife and mother are and while they watch helplessly, tear apart the house to look for his secret stash of money. Not only does he find and take the money, but he shoots Frank's German Shepard since the money was buried under the dog house and the dog (who was on a leash) was guarding it. 

So as I was watching this, I really didn't understand why Ruby Dee was nominated for an Oscar other  than it was a career nomination, but there is a scene between her and Denzel when Frank comes home and finds out what has happened and is ready to go get revenge, and this is when I realized it was this scene that got her the nomination. She tells Frank to not kill any cops and that his brothers look up to him and that "Even they know you don't shoot cops." She tells him "I never asked you where all this came from because I didn't want to hear you lie." She then proceeds to slap Frank (the only person in the world who could get away with slapping Frank Lucas across the face is his own mother!) and yells, "Don't lie to me!" She tells him that his wife will leave, and that "I will leave you." This is really the moment where she gets to shine. 

So Frank has a nephew named Steve (played by T.I.) who has a great arm for baseball and Frank knows the Yankees' manager or coach (of course he does) and sets up a meeting for Steve to meet with him, but Steve skips it and tells his uncle he would rather do what Frank does. Really, Steve? You'd rather be a drug dealer than a world-class athlete? I mean, sadly, he probably does get paid better as the drug dealer. Unfortunately, it also cuts his life short. You could say he did not live his life. 

With the information they have, Richie and the Narcotics Squad is able to find the apartment complex where the drugs are being made and there's a lot of shooting and running and chasing. Definitely the most action-packed and tense scene of the film. Richie chases and apprehends Huey. While this is going on, Frank was at church, so when he comes out with his mother, Richie and the others are waiting for him. More than two hours into the movie, this is the first scene we get with Denzel and Crowe.

There must have been some kind of time jump in the movie because one minute Richie Roberts is the detective who captured Frank Lucas and the next minute he's the prosecutor in Frank's case. It feels like there's a conflict of interest there, but I'm not a lawyer, so what do I know? Literally, everything I know about law I learned from The Practice or Legally Blonde and I'm dead serious. Oh, and maybe that one season of Law & Order (thud, thud) I watched.

This is when we get the first scene (and only) of dialogue between our two main actors. Frank tries to bribe Richie, but it doesn't work on him. In the end, they come to an agreement with Frank giving the names of the cops that took the bribes and there are a lot of names. As more and more cops are being arrested, Trupo shoots himself in the head.

At the end of the movie Richie asks Frank if he wants a drink for his "good work" to celebrate and Frank asks him, "You got any holy water?" and they both laugh like they're best friends now. Yeah, that was a little weird. The tone just seemed off for them to be buddies. We get some information about there characters written in text on the screen such as Frank Lucas was convicted of conspiracy to distribute narcotics and sentenced to 70 years, but for his cooperation his sentence was reduced to fifteen years and he was released in 1991. Now that is a good deal; he shaved 55 years off his sentence! Frank and Richie's collaboration led to the convictions of 3/4 of New York City's DEA and Riche quit being a prosecutor to become a defense attorney and his first client was Lucas. So first he was this guy's prosecutor, and now he's his defense lawyer? There's gotta be a conflict of interest with that! 

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