"The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room." — Frank Lucas
This line from American Gangster basically sums up Denzel Washington's quietly powerful portrayal of Frank Lucas. Every move he makes — no matter how violent — is done with a frighteningly calm control. It is in this way that Lucas manages to bring his Harlem drug ring to be on par with that of the Italians' in gritty 1960s and 1970s New York. And this quiet calm is deeply effective, not just in terms of what Lucas accomplishes in the story, but in Washington's ability to command our attention every moment he's onscreen.
The narrative runs the stories of two men simultaneously. One follows Frank Lucas (Washington), the quiet driver to Harlem's leading crime boss. When the boss dies, Lucas sees this as an opening to take over his boss' position. He uses his own connections and cleverness to bring a purer drug to the city's streets and sells it at a lower price, thus creating a booming business and countless more addicts. A serious businessman, Lucas brings his family into the organization and uses his wealth to provide for his mother and wife. Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is one of the few honest cops in a police force overrun by corruption, and he's on Lucas' trail. Bit by bit he gets closer to proving that Lucas is at the top of the crime chain and subsequently taking down Lucas' empire. That's not all there is to this film, though, so
You can believe all the hype surrounding this film. It is absolutely going to be nominated for awards. It's a compelling story from both a historic and dramatic point of view. Ridley Scott lovingly directs this movie with an eye toward capturing an ugly era, both socially/politically and just visually. The acting is superb. As the lead actors, Washington and Crowe are utterly without pretense, focused on getting the job done. It's eerie how well Washington is able to put a kindly family man face to the horrifying world of drug trafficking and addiction. It's way too easy to sympathize with those quiet eyes, that easy smile. Strangely, you want him to succeed, which automatically puts you on the side of the bad guys, technically speaking. But you just can't help it. Frank Lucas is a kind of twisted hero.
All in all, it is simply excellent: a historical story, a crime drama, a biopic exploring a crime boss who broke racial barriers in his particular business arena. If you're already a fan of movies like The Godfather and Scarface, or if you just want to be in the know once this film undoubtedly receives Oscar nods, American Gangster is a must-see.