American Gangster

15 01 2008

American GangsterEarly in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, Russell Crowe’s character, a New Jersey detective, discovers almost $1 million in unmarked bills in the trunk of a car. Does he take the money? If he does, he’s entering into the murky world of corruption that the bulk of his colleagues seem to inhabit; if he doesn’t, he’s putting himself in immediate danger because, as his partner observes, “Cops kill cops they can’t trust.” He decides to turn in the money anyway.

On one level, American Gangster is the true story of the rise and fall of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a self-made man who became Harlem’s heroin kingpin in the 1970s by directly importing his product from Thailand and cutting out the middleman. Lucas was a true entrepreneur, applying a ruthlessly capitalistic philosophy to the drug trade — he undercut the competition (who just happened to be the Mafia) by offering twice the quality at half the price.

On a deeper level, however, the film is about police corruption. Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian seem to contend that dirty cops are even worse than the criminals they bully. Washington’s Lucas adheres to his own (albeit twisted) code of ethics — he will snap quickly and mercilessly at anyone who betrays his trust, but he only does what he thinks he needs to do in pursuit of his business goals. The sleazy Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), on the other hand, has no honour, instead abusing his power in order to extort as much money as possible from the men he should be arresting. Trupo, it seems, is the real bad guy here.
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