This is a good movie that could have been two great movies. As it is, the film is so packed with all the stories that director Ridley Scott wanted to tell, that it’s difficult at times to fully engage with it. And to top it off, it just sort of… ends, as if Scott came to the final scene and said, “Well, I guess that’s it.” And even at the end, it’s still trying to tell you more story.
There are two main storylines that run parallel to each other, that of rising gangster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), and that of an honest cop, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), out to stop the drug trade. There’s also a smaller sub-story (which feeds into both of the main ones), which follows a gang of crooked cops led by a Special Officer named Trupo (Josh Brolin). The film stretches itself thin by trying to follow all these plots, so that we’re barely comfortable with one set of characters before we’re thrust in with another, and we’re left feeling like we didn’t really get to know any of them more than superficially.
That’s the downside of the film, but there’s a lot of good in it, and a lot which makes it worth seeing. Washington gives a fantastically layered performance as a man who is good and kind to his mother and his wife, and capable of the most brutal violence when it comes to others. He’s a man who wants to be seen as a provider to his community when he hands out turkeys at Thanksgiving, but fails to see how he’s also destroying that community by sending drugs out into it. To him, the bad things are just a part of business, and that’s the meat of the story, the thing that gets lost somewhat at the end when the film turns its focus to police corruption.
The film begins in 1968 with Frank’s boss lamenting the evolution of mom-and-pop stores into chain stores which cut out the suppliers by buying directly from the source. When he dies and leaves Frank to pick up the pieces of the enterprise, Frank tailors it to fit the changing market place. Frank, too, will cut out the suppliers and make his fortune and gain his power by buying directly from the source. He goes to Bangkok where his cousin is stationed and they make an arrangement to buy pure heroin and ship it back to the United States in the coffins of dead soldiers. Frank sells his product for half of what other dealers are charging, and soon he’s got a monopoly on the market. He’s a capitalist in the fullest sense of the word. If it weren’t for the fact that his product was heroin, he’d be considered just another businessman (and a very good one, at that), rather than a gangster.
The thing that keeps him going for so long is the fact that he does look like just another businessman. He dresses in nice suits and looks respectable and advises his brother not to dress flashy because “it’s like saying, ‘Arrest me.’” The most dangerous people in this film are the people like Frank and the high level police officers: criminals who are hiding in plain sight. When Frank fails to take his own advice by donning a flashy fur coat (a gift from his wife), it leads to his downfall. People notice him in this coat – the good cop who wants to stop the drug trade by getting the major dealer, and the bad cop who is suddenly made aware that there’s someone out there who hasn’t been paying him off. Frank announces himself to the world, and then has to face consequences from all sides.
What’s good about this film is very, very good, but it simply tries to be about too much. It’s about the rise and fall of a gangster, and it’s about an honest cop trying to deal with crime on the outside and the corruption that surrounds him while also trying to fight a custody battle with his ex-wife, and it’s about social issues (there are a lot of shots of people shooting heroin and open sores and overdoses, and there is also a lot of talk of heroin and opium addicted soldiers in Vietnam), and it’s about race (part of the reason Frank is able to lay low for so long is that no one believes that a black man could gain that much power, and everyone just assumes that he’s working for someone even more powerful). There’s just so much in it that the film doesn’t explore any of it as effectively as it otherwise might have.