New York in 1968 and the death of Bumpy Johnson has left a power vacuum in his crime syndicate, but his driver and confidante Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) steps up to fill the position, taking to heart his late boss's lessons about how society ain't what it used to be and how Lucas can capitalise on that to the organisation's advantage. Therefore before long this upstart in some people's eyes was using his keen mind to lay the foundations of one of the biggest heroin dealing gangs of the seventies...
Although Lucas was not going to have it all his own way, no matter that we see many members of the New York drugs squad are only too happy to line their pockets with the profits of the heroin boom thanks to illicit deals with the local Mafia. That's because there's a detective named Richie Roberts, played by co-star Russell Crowe, who is a clean-living kind of guy and not one to bow to pressure when it comes to taking bribes, as illustrated by his handing in of about a million dollars which somehow found its way into his clutches. So what you had here was director Ridley Scott's answer to Michael Mann's Heat, with the bonus of it being based on truth.
The set-up was too similar to be a coincidence, especially in the way the two stars, on opposite sides of the law, do not meet in the same scene, at least until the very end. But Scott also harkened back to a rich history of, well, American Gangster movies, with the Lucas clan he brings in to oversee his schemes resembling a black version of The Godfather, and much of the Roberts business inspired by any amount of seventies police procedurals, although he was a cop who genuinely played by the rules, and that got him into trouble. The trouble was, while this was a battle of wills, too much of the film looked to be the stars acting against their absent opposite number, leaving the proceedings oddly flat.
Certainly Scott kept things as controlled as the real Lucas did, taking his cue for the tone of the film from Washington's studied performance, but after a while you would be hankering for a good old-fashioned car chase rather than yet another terse conversation. Crowe fared less well than his counterpart, stuck with womanising to indicate Roberts was not quite the knight in shining armour he would have liked to embody, and the stuff about his divorce and custody dispute could easily have been excised; indeed the only reason the Roberts role was given the time it had appeared to be due to the presence of an A-list celeb portraying him. Really, the Lucas sequences were the engine of the story.
It's an interesting story at that, with Lucas dominating the heroin market thanks to his high quality, low price product, leaving him not only very rich but a lot of people very dead through overdoses of such pure drugs. The corruption shown is troubling, especially the way certain members of the United States military in the Vietnam War were abusing their position and helping to ship the heroin back home for a tidy sum: they eventually stuff the narcotics and cash into the coffins of dead soldiers in the ultimate insult to the deceased, not to mention their ideals of country. Bringing us this sobering tale were a group of worthy thesps, with some more famous faces appearing in surprisingly small roles, but alas that was about all that was surprising. Although you could be dismayed at the criminality brought to the screen, there was little here that truly shocked, and the mood was more resignation than outrage. Interesting, but reading the original article would have told you just as much. Music by Marc Streitenfeld.
Talented, prolific British director whose background in set design and advertising always brings a stylised, visually stunning sheen to often mainstream projects. Scott made his debut in 1977 with the unusual The Duellists, but it was with his next two films - now-classic sci-fi thrillers Alien and Blade Runner - that he really made his mark. Slick fantasy Legend and excellent thriller Someone to Watch Over Me followed, while Thelma and Louise proved one of the most talked-about films of 1991. However, his subsequent movies - the mega-budget flop 1492, GI Jane and the hopeless White Squall failed to satisfy critics or find audiences.
Scott bounced back to the A-list in 2000 with the Oscar-winning epic Gladiator, and since then has had big hits with uneven Hannibal, savage war drama Black Hawk Down and his Robin Hood update. Prometheus, tentatively sold as a spin-off from Alien, created a huge buzz in 2012, then a lot of indignation. His Cormac McCarthy-penned thriller The Counselor didn't even get the buzz, flopping badly then turning cult movie. Exodus: Gods and Kings was a controversial Biblical epic, but a success at the box office, as was sci-fi survival tale The Martian. Alien Covenant was the second in his sci-fi prequel trilogy, but did not go down well with fans. Brother to the more commercial, less cerebral Tony Scott.