"This is my home. This is where my business is, my wife, my mother, my family. This is my country, I ain't goin' nowhere."
— Frank Lucas
American Gangster is a 2007 crime film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Washington portrays Frank Lucas, a real-life gangster from late 1960s and 1970s Harlem who smuggled heroin into the United States on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. Crowe portrays Richie Roberts, a detective attempting to bring down Lucas' drug empire.Spoilers ahead.
This movie provides examples of:
Adaptational Attractiveness: The real-life Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts do not look like Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, respectively.
Anti-Villain: "The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work... family... never forgetting where we came from." Yes, you can be in the heroin-smuggling industry and still have honesty and integrity.
Book Dumb: While it's not that evident in the film, the real life Lucas was functionally illiterate. Nonetheless, he could still tell how much money there was in a stack just by weight.
Cassandra Truth: Leading into the finale Richie tries to start checking one of the coffins for drugs, and is stopped by just about everybody present, including his boss. Guess where the drugs were hidden?
Da Chief: Captain Lou Toback, Richie's honest superior. He's the second captain played by Ted Levine, after his performance on Monk.
Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster: Interesting take on this one. Lucas deliberately avoids the excesses of gangster life (though that's probably for practical reasons - the first and only time he dresses up like the flashy gangster stereotype, he gets noticed by Ritchie and this leads to his downfall). Also, he does his best to discourage his nephew from pursuing a criminal career. And the alternate ending makes it clear what Lucas thinks about today's gangsta culture.
Dirty Cop: Everyone except Ritchie. Three quarters of New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency end up convicted by the end of the film.
Don't Tell Mama: subverted, because even though Lucas never tells his mother where the family prosperity comes from, she knows. Towards the end she proves that she's not naive or stupid when she calls him out on this, and involving the rest of the family in drug trafficking.
Enemies Equals Greatness: Frank was advised by Domonic that he can be successful when he has enemies, and unsuccessful when he has friends.
Enemy Mine: At the end of the film, Frank and Ritchie cooperate to put NYC's corrupt cops in prison. In return for information, Frank's sentence is reduced by 55 years. Ritchie eventually becomes a defense attorney. His first client is Frank Lucas. A deleted scene had Ritchie picking up Lucas from jail and helping him find a place, but Scott thought it was too much of a genre shift from gangster film to buddy film.note In Real Life, Lucas and Ritchie are Heterosexual Life-Partners
And then it's humorously undone a little when they're consultants during filming and get back into their old roles as adversaries. Ritchie (paraphrased): "Lucas' having too much fun, and I want to arrest him again!"
Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Frank tries to persuade nephew Steve, a talented baseball player, to pursue a pro career. He even arranges an interview with the manager of the New York Yankees. Frank is understandably upset when Steve decides to stick with the family business and is killed during a shootout with police.
Evil Power Vacuum: After Bumpy's death, chaos reigns in Harlem, as it's "every gorilla for himself." Once Frank's Mafia contact stresses the importance of order, he starts stepping in more and more to fill that void.
Evil Versus Evil: Lucas himself is no saint, but the corrupt cops who were against him ain't better either.
Foil: Lucas is a family man with strong morals (apart from his business) and his personal life is, for the most part, pretty good. Contrast with Ritchie; despite his status as a "good cop", his domestic life falls apart and he cheats on his wife before the divorce is complete. The difference between their quality of life is made especially clear during the Thanksgiving dinner montage.
Richie's additional foil is Trupo, a corrupt cop who also has all the niceties he doesn't have (Shelby GT 350, clothes, house...).
Flashed Badge Hijack: A deleted scene has Richie punching out a cab-driver who refuses to let him take his cab so that he can follow a lead.
Good Is Not Nice: Richie Roberts. He's not a bad guy or even a jerk, just massively fucked up in a lot of ways.
Grey and Grey Morality: Played with. Frank's unquestionably a criminal but he's matched against Italian gangsters, the largely-corrupt NYPD and ineffectual Federal agents - Ritchie's team excepted of course.
Hero Antagonist: Thanks to the Affably Evil portrayal of Lucas, one can easily forget that he's swamping Harlem with a deadly drug and resent Ritchie for pursuing him.
Informed Judaism: In extended cut, during final scene Richie is wearing a David star on his neck. Nothing aside from this detail implies him being Jewish or having any connections with Judaism.
Lonely at the Top: The higher Frank gets, the more enemies he earns. Then inverted with his family - he is left alone after his empire collapsed.
Mood Dissonance: One sequence shows Frank having a hearty Thanksgiving dinner in his mansion with his family, and contrasts it with Ritchie's crappy excuse of a dinner and drug addicts overdosing on Frank's product.
Actually it's the heavily diluted drugs put out by rivals like Nicky Barnes and the DEA that gets addicts killed, with Frank seeming insistent on having a good product with his mostly pure Blue Magic heroin.
The Mafia: Frank's competitors. At least at first. At one point, Frank is given the "keys to the kingdom" as his organization is much more efficient.
Neighbourhood Friendly Gangsters: To the audience, Lucas is a dangerous criminal, but to the in-movie civilians he tries to portray himself as a modest, churchgoing family man who takes care of his neighborhood. Imitating his mentor Bumpy Johnson, Lucas even gave out free turkeys on Thanksgiving.
"I got Harlem. I took care of Harlem, so Harlem's gonna take care of me."
No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Frank delivers few. The most disturbing one happens when he use a piano lid to smash one of undisciplined man right in front of numerous guest during party in his house.
No Honor Among Thieves: Right after realising he can't buy Richie, Frank is ready to rat on everyone, having no qualms about selling other criminals.
Oscar Bait: The film is full of examples of this, and the talent behind it are mostly known to be Academy favorites. However, the film earned just two Oscar nominations; one was for set design, the other rather surprisingly turned out to be a Best Supporting Actress for Ruby Dee (most expected that if the film did get a nomination in this category, it would go to Carla Gugino). The screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, admitted after the film's release that it probably felt too similar to the previous year's big Oscar winner, The Departed to have any real chance of success at the awards.
Police Brutality: A lot of excess force is used by cops, both the clean and the corrupt ones.
"The Reason You Suck" Speech: Richie gets one from his wife during their custody hearing, when she calls him out for thinking he's a good guy while completely destroying his family life. He actually takes it to heart and admits she's right.
Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Despite being based on Frank Lucas' life, many aspects of the story are either disputed—the use of the coffins to smuggle drugs, Lucas being Bumpy Robinson's right-hand man—or outright untrue. For example, Richie Roberts never had children, yet spends the movie in a custody battle with his ex. Meanwhile, Frank Lucas and his wife had seven children, his wife herself was arrested and convicted for involvement with Frank's drug business, and the two have been married for over 40 years—completely the opposite of what was portrayed in the film—the Lucas' are childless, his wife is aware of his business, but uninvolved, and she leaves him after his arrest.
Would Hit a Girl: With a bit of double standards - when Trupo smacks Frank's wife, it's to show how bad he is. When Richie kicks the woman in charge of distribution in the face, he's Combat Pragmatist.