Film / American Gangster

"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.
  • Affably Evil: Lucas.
  • American Title
  • 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.
  • Arch-Enemy: Ritchie seems to consider Lucas this, even if the latter is not even aware of him for most of the film. Frank himself despises Trupo, who is thorn in Frank's side when he keeps extorting money from him , in return of allowing his operations to continue. It leads to Frank having a bomb planted in his car as a warning, and when he later seizes his emergency money, Frank considers personally killing him. Frank ultimately gets the last laugh on Trupo when after his downfall, he implicates him as one of the dozens of officers that got involved with him or the New York drug scene, disgracing him and driving him to suicide than be arrested.
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: The best of lot for the NYPD is Richie himself.
  • Big Fancy House: Frank buys one for his Mama.
  • Biopic
  • 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?
  • Catch Phrase: Frank got his My man.
  • Cluster F-Bomb
  • Coffin Contraband: Military coffins are used to smuggle heroin into the US.
  • Composite Character: Dominic Cattano is probably Carmine Tramunti. But his plot function is as representative of the old school Mafia slowly fading away.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Frank arrives in Thailand through his cousin-in-law, Sgt. Ike Atkinson, and travels to an opium field controlled by a Kuomintang general. The general is, at first, fairly apprehensive about selling him the heroin, and quizzes Lucas on how he expects to transport 100kg of heroin without the US military noticing and without the help of a well-known and experienced organization; Lucas simply responds "You don't have to worry about that". The general then asks what happens if he survives the attempt, or evades capture. Lucas confidently responds that he'll purchase much more from them - through a representative. Amused, and impressed by his determination, the general agrees on the deal. It turns out that Frank had the heroin transported by hiding it in the coffins of dead US servicemen.
  • 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.
  • Driven to Suicide: Trupo at the end.
  • Enemies Equals Greatness: Frank was advised by Dominic that he can be successful when he has enemies, and unsuccessful when he has friends, when Frank comes to him about an assassination attempt on him and his wife.
  • 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 
    • 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!"
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: One of the first thing Frank did after setting up his own organisation was move his mother to a sizable mansion in Connecticut, including having her room recreated. In fact, it was his mother's insistence on not letting Frank take revenge on Trupo for seizing his drug money and attend church with her instead, that eventually brings him down.
  • 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...).
  • Faux Affably Evil: Dominic Cattano.
  • 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. His boss is not so much annoyed that he did this, but that he did it after flashing his police badge, leading to the possibility of the cab driver pressing charges.
    Lou: Couldn't you knock him out before showing your badge?
  • Friendly Enemy: Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes despite being rival mobsters, are on rather friendly speaking terms with each other. The only time things get a little tense was when Frank expressed his irritation at him altering his "Blue Magic" product and insisted on him not using the name if he's going to purchase and alter the heroin anyway.
  • Generic Ethnic Crime Gang
  • "Get out of Jail Free" Card: Not quite, but Frank's sentence is greatly reduced. See Enemy Mine.
  • 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 Gray 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.
  • Historical Beauty Update: Neither Lucas nor Roberts were as attractive in real life as they are in the film.
  • 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 (other than being called a "kike" by the FBI special agent who reams him out over raiding the military plane).
  • Jerkass: Tango; Trupo.
  • The Last DJ: Ritchie discovers he's this in the NYPD, when he turns in $1 million he found in the boot of a car. The rest of the NYPD officers treat him as a pariah.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Mole: Frank's cousin/driver.
  • 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."
  • Never Live It Down: Ritchie turning in the $1 million that he found. Even Lucas calls him on it, but ironically, is the only one to praise him for doing so.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Both times that Frank does something against his pragmatic ruthless nature when pushed by his loved ones, it proves to be his downfall. First when his wife coerces him in wearing a extravagant fur coat that makes Richie notice him for the first time, second was his mother pleading him not to take revenge on Trupo and instead go to church, where the cops are waiting for him.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Frank delivers a few. The most disturbing one happens when he uses a piano lid to smash the head of one of his undisciplined men (one of his cousins, no less!) right in front of numerous guests during a 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.
    • It's worth noting that he mostly sold out the Dirty Cops he knew, having a passionate hatred for them even if they aided him. It's Ritchie's own firm handle on his principles impressed him, and he agreed to help him.
  • Of Corpse He's Alive: A corrupt cop has killed a man in drug deal gone bad, and his neighbors are close to rioting. The cops have paramedics bandage the corpse, open his eyes, and prop him up on a gurney. They then wheel him to the ambulance, pacifying the crowd by assuring them that he'll be fine and they're taking him to the hospital.
  • 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.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Less "hero" and more "Obstructive Bureaucrat", but the FBI Special Agent who grills Robertson over raiding a military plane and searching coffins of deceased American soldiers counts. When Robertson tells him that his sources leads to Frank Lucas heading the Golden Triangle drug trafficking operation, he asks if he's Italian, and when Robertson replies he's black, he assumes that he must be working for the Mafia, scoffing at the notion that a "nigger" could by himself set up an operation on a scale larger than anything the Mafia has done, before calling Robertson a "kike" when he dismisses him.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Frank pretty uses this as a principle.
  • Rabid Cop: Most of the NYPD had lost their sense of morality by the time the film begins.
  • Straight Edge Evil: Frank Lucas. See Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster .
  • "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.
  • The Rival: Frank Lucas has two: one in Tango, when he starts out, and later another in Nicky Barnes.
  • The '70s
  • Tempting Fate:
    Tango: What the fuck you gonna do, Frank, hm? What you doin? You wanna shoot me, in front of everybody!? Huh, come on...(Boom, Headshot)
  • The Vietnam War / Holiday in Cambodia
  • 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.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Lucas have a brief one while ranting about someone trying to kill his wife.
  • Villain Protagonist: Frank Lucas is either this or a very dark Anti-Hero.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: See Neighbourhood-Friendly Gangsters.
  • 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.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Tango learned hard way that Frank would. Right after shooting him Lucas walked calmly back to the diner like nothing happened, while his brothers and cousins watched the execution in shock.