The true story of enterprising Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the too-honest cop on his tail, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Lucas, who began as driver for kingpin Bumpy Johnson (an excellent cameo by Clarence Williams III), took over when his boss died, and came up with an idea of importing drugs directly from the source in Vietnam, thus cutting out the middle-man (this is in the late 60s through the 70s, by the way, during the Vietnam War). Considering himself a smart businessman, he sells a high quality drug called Blue Magic at a relatively cheap price, and has a strict code of business and behaviour that involves he and his people, keeping a relatively low-profile. He even gets himself a gorgeous and exotic Puerto Rican wife (Lymari Nadal). Roberts, meanwhile, is hated by his colleagues for turning in $1 million in drug money intended for payoffs. His partner, meanwhile, becomes addicted to drugs. So, professionally, he’s a saint, but he’s going through a bitter custody battle with ex Carla Gugino over the kid he seems to have barely any time for. He’s given the plum job of heading up a narcotics squad and picking his own men (John Hawkes among them), with Richie aiming to target the top drug lord they can get evidence on. And gee, wonder who that’ll be. Aside from these two opposing figures, we have Josh Brolin (in top form) as an aggressive, corrupt cop, Chiwetel, Ejiofor as Lucas’ brother and right-hand man, rappers Common and T.I. as other family members (father and son!), and the legendary Dee as Lucas’ beloved mother (Lucas is a devout family man, at least in his mind), whilst Ric Young and Roger Guenveur Smith as Lucas’ sinister contacts in Vietnam, Armand Assante as a rich Mafioso whom Lucas has tentative dealings with (You probably didn’t even need to know what Assante plays, such is his reputation), the well-cast Jon Polito as another Italian crook, and a very solid Cuba Gooding Jr. (charisma personified here) plays flashy-dressing, reckless pimpified dealer Nicky Barnes, who tries to sell a knock-off version of ‘Blue Magic’. That doesn’t go down too well with Lucas. Not. At. All.
Solid 2007 Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”, “Alien”, “Black Rain”, “Black Hawk Down”) cop vs. gangster pic does not really bring anything new to the table plot-wise (“The Godfather”, “Goodfellas”, “Scarface”, and especially “Serpico”, and many others are pilfered here), but it is a pretty persuasive film nonetheless, and never boring. In fact, it might have been an even better film if it weren’t trying so hard to convince us it’s a great film.
I had a few problems with the two lead characters to be honest, particularly Denzel’s character and performance. Of the two main characters’ stories, I found that Lucas’ had the most potential for interest, but that Roberts’ character won me over in the end. Sure, it was just “Serpico” all over again, but that was a great film, and it’s still interesting stuff (particularly the sad plight of his partner and all the fascinating procedural stuff as Roberts attempts to nail Lucas- this stuff may be old hat, but it still works), with Crowe excellent in the part, a much less showy performance than usual from him. I liked all the stuff with Crowe’s Roberts balancing his police work with legal aspirations, as it’s something you don’t often see in a cop movie. His marital woes are much less interesting, however, this subplot goes nowhere, and true or not, it’s actually not very necessary. Sure, it gives a contrast with Lucas being that Roberts is a stand-up cop and a shitty husband, and Denzel is a devout family man…and a shitbag ruthless criminal, but that point gets made pretty early.
As for Lucas, I felt Denzel, although committed to the part (and really quite excellent when displaying the few violent tendencies afforded to the otherwise ice-cold Lucas), wasn’t the right guy, or at least not the best choice. Playing Lucas as not so much a good guy or bad guy as an ‘Average Joe’ (Yet this is a guy whom we first see setting a guy on fire for fuck’s sake!), he gives a low-key, glum performance whereas a fiery/volcanic actor, say Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne, Terrence Howard (who would’ve had an edginess to him, if not a weight/presence), or Samuel L. Jackson might’ve really nailed the part. It would also have helped sell what I think is the most fascinating, but least developed idea in the film; How much more interesting would it have been if the film had focussed on the notion that this African-American man is attempting to claim his part of the capitalistic American Dream by selling drugs, and selling them indeed to his own ‘people’ (working-class African-Americans)? And how much more interesting would it have been if this man were seen as an outwardly super-cool, showy, but essentially morally bankrupt guy, somewhat like Gooding’s Barnes character? Had the film spent more time on this notion, recast the Lucas role, removed Roberts’ family woes, it might’ve been dynamite stuff (if a little “New Jack City”).
I’m only going into detail about the sore points to clarify its status as solid but not as great as it thinks it is. Truth be told, I actually understand Denzel’s casting, as an actor with less presence might’ve gotten swallowed up by Crowe. As it stands, it’s never boring, but only truly effective in fits and starts. Josh Brolin, in particular is a standout in the cast. Looking like Nick Nolte in Sidney Lumet’s “Q&A” he perhaps gives the film’s best and liveliest performance, even if the film ultimately manages to waste his effort, despite the mammoth 2 ½ hour length. In his few scenes, he has the presence and intimidation that Denzel’s ‘Average Joe’ approach denies himself of. Best Denzel gets is occasional violence and a whole lotta ice-cold demeanour. John Ortiz is a close second, as Roberts’ troubled partner, looking a tad like Ron O’Neal in “Superfly”. He’s particularly excellent and troubling. And let’s face it, any film could use a little more Ruby Dee, couldn’t it? Typically cool soundtrack features the requisite hits ‘Across 110th Street’ by Bobby Womack and ‘Pusherman’ by Curtis Mayfield among others. The screenplay by Steve Zaillian (“Gangs of New York”, Oscar-nominee for “Awakenings” and Oscar-winner for “Schindler’s List”), from the amusingly titled Mark Jacobson article “The Return of Superfly” (this is anything but a blaxploitation film). Terrific final scene, giving you a bit of food for thought mostly through a musical cue (It works better than the awkward final shot of the otherwise superior “Gangs of New York”, if you ask me). Oh, and the award for Worst Fake Moustache of All-Time goes to Joe Morton, a very fine character actor who here looks like a skinny Keenan Thompson as Al Sharpton, but with Scatman Crothers’ toupee from “Black Belt Jones”. He looks completely ridiculous.