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Film / American Gangster

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"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:

  • The '60s: The film begins in 1968 Harlem, before quickly shifting over to...
  • The '70s: Where the rest of the story plays out.
  • 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: Obviously.
  • 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 proves to be a thorn in Frank's side by continuously extorting money from him in return for allowing Frank's operations to continue. It leads Frank to have a bomb planted in his car as a warning, and when Trupo later seizes Frank's emergency money, Frank considers personally killing him. Frank ultimately gets the last laugh on Trupo when, after his downfall, he implicates Trupo as one of the dozens of officers that got involved with him or the New York drug scene, thus disgracing him and driving him to commit suicide rather than be arrested.
  • Artistic License – History: Now has its own subpage.
  • Asshole Victim: Trupo, made symbolic in that when he kills himself, even the maid vacuuming his house fails to notice.
  • Badass Crew: Richie's squad, as Spearman puts it "They're honest and they're fearless"
  • Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: The best of the lot for the NYPD is Richie himself.
  • Big Fancy House: Frank buys one for his Mama. And what we see of Trupo's house certainly puts him well above what an honest cop on the force could ever likely afford.
  • Biopic: Based on the real lives of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts.
  • 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. It's implied when the ending of the Vietnam War catches Lucas completly off-guard despite it winding down would been obvious for months if he paid attention to the news.
  • Boom, Headshot!: When Frank demands his money to Tango and Tango challenges him to shoot in front of public, Frank coldbloodedly shoots Tango in the head at point blank range.
  • Bittersweet Ending: For both Richie and Frank.
    • Ritchie, despite ultimately bringing down Frank's organization and becoming an attorney, is unable to save his marriage.
    • Frank, despite avoiding a lengthy prison sentence, still has to serve 15 years and when he's released, he finds himself in a new era he is completely unfamiliar with and completely alone.
  • Cassandra Truth: Leading into the finale; Richie tries to start checking one of the military coffins for drugs, and is stopped by just about everybody present, including his boss. Guess where the drugs were hidden?
  • Catchphrase: Frank has one, "My man."
  • Chick Magnet: Richie to almost comical extents.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Not to the extent of many other films, but the movie consists of at least 150 uses of the f-word.
  • Coffin Contraband: Military coffins are used to smuggle heroin into the US.
  • Coitus Uninterruptus: One of Frank's half-naked drug molls chats with his brothers as casually as if she were fully clothed.
  • Composite Character: Dominic Cattano is probably Carmine Tramunti. But his plot function is as representative of the old school Mafia slowly fading away.
  • Conspicuous Consumption: Frank does his best to avoid this, and the one time he breaks this rule, wearing a fancy fur coat in public because his wife bought it for him, it attracts attention from the police.
  • Cool Car: Trupo's prized Shelby Mustang. He's not happy when Frank has it blown up in retaliation for interrupting his wedding.
  • 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 former 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.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Keep in mind during the police raid shootout, not one cop was killed or injured, in contrast to the drug dealers being killed or apprehended.
  • 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.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Despite intimidating and threatening Frank throughout the entire movie, including during the latter's wedding, Trupo seemed to have no contingency plan in place in the event of Frank getting busted and ratting him out.
    • Frank himself being caught off-guard by the ending of the Vietnam War thus cutting off his supply line with no dead US servicemen to smuggle the heroin in their coffins when it should been obvious it would end eventually.
  • Dirty Cop:
  • 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 is advised by Dominic that he can be successful and have enemies, or be unsuccessful and have friends, when Frank comes to Dominic furious 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!"
  • Epic Fail: During the raid on Frank's drug production factory one of his thugs fires a shotgun blast at the closed door the cops are forcing open. The buckshot ricochets off the door and painfully hits the guy in the face.
  • 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.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Richie and his team not taking bribes but genuinely wanting to take Lucas down mystifies many people in the movie, especially Trupo and his dirty cops.
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Frank tries to persuade his 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 go into the drug business but when Frank's operations get busted and is shot and killed during the 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.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The movie is about you guessed it an American gangster.
  • 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...).
  • Fan Disservice: Subverted. The half-naked women in Frank's drug den are all very attractive, but their beauty is diminished by the gritty business they're in.
  • 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.
    • Frank and Richie eventually become this when cooperating to take down corrupt cops, and eventually Richie becomes Frank's defense attorney.
  • Generic Ethnic Crime Gang: Frank Lucas models his empire on the Italians' to create an African-American mafia, with him as the patriarch.
  • Get Out!: After delivering the smashes one of his cousins, Jimmy, to the piano for causing a disturbance in his cocktail party, Frank kicks all of his guests out.
    Frank: Alright, everybody get out! GET OUT!
  • "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.
  • Hate Sink: As vicious as Frank is, he does have some scruples and cares for his loved ones. Trupo is a detestable Smug Snake with zero redeeming qualities or any Freudian Excuse beyond being a hateful prick. Nobody in-universe seems to care much after he dies.
  • 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.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: While Lucas' wife Eva is aware of his criminal dealings, she's not actually involved with them. Frank's real-life wife, Julianna Farrait-Rodriguez, was arrested for and convicted of taking part in her husband's illegal activities.
  • Historical Relationship Overhaul: The real-life Richie and his first wife never had a child together, meaning the film's Establishing Character Moment (being revealed to have an ongoing bitter custody battle with his wife, which is influencing his work-life balance) was completely fabricated for the film. Roberts would later go on to tell the New York Post in an interview years later that the portrayal of his life was "offensive".
  • Informed Judaism: Ritchie wears a Star of David necklace throughout the film. Nothing aside from this detail implies him being Jewish or having any connections with Judaism (other than being called a "kike" by the District Attorney who reams him out over raiding the military plane).
  • Jerkass:
    • Tango doesn't pay Frank the money he owes him, and even rubs it in Frank's face. Frank responds to this by blowing Tango's brains out.
    • Meanwhile Trupo is the peak performance one can get as a sleazy, corrupt cop in high places, mocking everyone with each of his move, knowing they can't do anything to him, while being at his mercy and having to pay him just to keep running their business or not being whacked.
    • The District Attorney blows off all of Richie's explanations of Frank's operation and caps it off by directing an anti-Semitic slur at Richie.
  • Just a Gangster: Frank is told or reminded numerous times that he could retire on the money he's made, and that continuing to be involved in criminal activity puts himself and others close to him at risk of being killed or arrested. He chooses to continue dealing drugs, and sure enough, is eventually caught.
  • Kick The Son Of A Bitch: Frank agrees to cooperate with the NYPD to expose corrupt cops; he ensures that 3/4 of the NYPD and the New York branch of the DEA are exposed and arrested, and Trupo commits suicide.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Frank is advised to keep this in mind by his heroin supplier, who reminds him that Frank has his money, his family, etc., and is going through needless risks by trying to continue importing heroin as the war in Vietnam winds down, which would cut off Frank's supply.
    Kuomintang General: Quitting while you're ahead isn't the same as quitting.
  • The Last DJ: Ritchie discovers he's this in the NYPD, when he turns in $1 million he found in the trunk of a car. The rest of the NYPD officers treat him as a pariah because someone that honest might just try to turn them in for their own corruption. His career is dead in the water until a friendly supervisor Toback moves him across the river to New Jersey and puts Ritchie in charge of a special unit. His partner, despite being less squeaky clean, gets hit with it too for having gone along with Ritchie in turning in the money, and goes on a downward spiral that includes becoming an addict and overdosing on Frank's product, which was cut down and thus made more dangerous against Frank's instructions.
  • 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 tuna sandwich with potato chips of a dinner and drug addicts overdosing on Frank's pure 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.
  • 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."
    • Nicky Barnes dresses up as Santa giving out gifts for Christmas.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished:
    • The one time that Frank does something against his pragmatic ruthless nature was at the request of his wife, and it proves to be his downfall. She coerces him in wearing a extravagant fur coat that makes Richie notice him.
    • Richie turning in the $1 million that he finds gets him branded as someone untrustworthy by the corrupt cops that he works with—even the honest cops that he work with shake their heads at it.
  • 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. The cousin did in fact just shoot another person in the leg so...
    • And worse it was a NYPD Detective who was in the pocket of Frank that his cousin shot.
  • 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.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Played for Drama with Mama Lucas. She spends most of the film apparently blissfully unaware of how Frank is making his money—but towards the end, she reveals that she's known all along: "I never asked you where all this came from, because I didn't want to hear you lie to me..."
  • 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.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: The conversation between Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes at the latter's club over the alteration of Blue Magic issue involves Frank lobbing very barbed shots at Nicky, until Nicky gets fed up and demands respect from Frank. Frank, impressed by his pushback, leaves anyway, since he got what he wanted: an agreement that he'll stop messing with his product.
  • 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 Roberts over raiding a military plane and searching coffins of deceased American soldiers counts. When Roberts tells him that his sources leads to Frank Lucas heading the Golden Triangle drug trafficking operation, he asks if he's Italian, and when Roberts replies he's Black, he assumes that he must be working for the Mafia, using racial epithets for both Black and Jewish people. The later, used against Roberts, almost earns him a beating.
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • "Rise and Fall" Gangster Arc: The film charts the career of Frank Lucas, from his time serving as the driver for Harlem mob boss "Bumpy" Johnson through his ascent to become head of one of the most lucrative heroin rings in the United States. He is ultimately arrested when the police force one of his cousins to turn informant, and will himself go on to testify against many of the corrupt officers he bribed over the years.
  • The Rival: Frank Lucas has two: one in Tango, when he starts out, and later another in Nicky Barnes.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Richie Roberts finds $1 million in cash and turns it in to the chagrin of his partner because it was "the right thing to do." It also foreshadows how honest of a cop he is and how much he hates dirty cops.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: He may be a ruthless drug lord but Frank does look nice in those suits.
  • Suddenly Shouting: The District Attorney does this while taking Ritchie to task over strip-searching a military plane, even searching the coffins of dead US servicemen, with a drug smuggling tipoff as justification. He finds the suggestion so grim, outlandish and dishonorable that he won't even consider the possibility that the integrity of the US military is compromised even if there is no other explanation as to how pure heroin from South East Asia ended up in American soil.
    District Attorney: That was a military transport plane. If there was heroin onboard that means that someone in the military would have to be involved. Which means even as it fights a war that has claimed 50,000 American lives, the military is involved in narcotics. That is how this event today will be interpreted: That someone employed by this office believes that the US Army is in the drug trafficking business, and is trying to prove it by descrecrating the remains of young men who have GIVEN THEIR LIVES IN DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACY!
    Ritchie: There was dope on that plane-
    District Attorney: SHUT THE FUCK UP!
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: When one poor thug fires a shotgun at a steel door during the police raid and the buckshot ricochet hits him in the face. Ask anybody knowledgeable with guns; this is exactly what would happen in real life.
  • Tempting Fate: Frank pulls a gun and puts it against Tango's head at a streetside market, with Tango daring Frank to shoot him over some owed money. Tango assumes that Frank won't pull the trigger, because there are hundreds of witnesses nearby that would see Frank shoot him. Tango assumes incorrectly.
    Tango: Oh, what you gonna do? What the fuck you gonna do, Frank? Huh? Whatchu doin'? You gonna shoot me? In front of everybody? Huh? Come on— (bang)
  • Thicker Than Water: Frank tells Huey that if he wasn’t his brother, he would kill him. This statement would apply to Huey’s constant screw-ups throughout the movie.
  • Unknown Rival: Richie believes Frank to be his nemesis. Frank hasn't even heard of him for most of the film. Frank is also this for the US government - the District Attorney hasn't heard of him at all even if he's one of the NYPD's biggest targets.
  • 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.
  • We Need a Distraction: During the raid on Frank's heroin house, Jones has to quickly pretend to be a junkie in order to lure out a guard so Richie could knock him out.
  • Wedding Smashers: Not the wedding itself, but close enough. Trupo deliberately pulls over Frank and Eva as they're driving away from their wedding ceremony out of spite despite Frank's pleas not to. Frank is understandably pissed at this, and retaliates by bombing Trupo's prized Shelby Mustang.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In his quest to take down Frank, Richie has the coffin of a dead American soldier opened and attempts to search the body. This upsets the military policemen, offends a nearby US Army officer, and enrages the District Attorney.
  • Would Hit a Girl: In the resulting chaos of a police raid, Richie ends up kicking the woman in charge of distribution in her face without as much as a blink. Trupo also slaps Eva when she threatens him.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


American Gangster

Tango is certain Frank won't shoot him, even as Frank's gun is pointed straight at his head.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (15 votes)

Example of:

Main / YouWouldntShootMe

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