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The One-Line Summary: In Harlem in the late 1960s, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) takes over as a crime boss when his former mentor dies, making sweeping changes in how to smuggle and sell heroin while gaining the attention of straight-laced, incorruptible detective Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe), put in charge of a special task force aggressively targeting drug kingpins.
The Two-Line Blurb: An exceptionally well filmed and directed saga, it is Washington and Crowe who deliver some of the best work in their careers, with Washington especially brimming with frighteningly real menace who is defies the era’s expectations with a subdued, un-flashy style that makes him invisible to the police who can’t imagine that a lone black man could outright upend the mafia and utterly steal their business. Directed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster is based on the real story of a drug lord named Lucas who made a deal with a Southeast Asian drug runner to smuggle product into the United States in the coffins of U.S. soldiers sent back from the Vietnam War.
The Three-Line Set-up: This moment is about establishing authority and redirecting power in the neighborhood away from the current run of low-rent but colorful bosses. Disturbed by the brash and flamboyant neighborhood thugs, Franks decides to go in a different direction, with a low profile and a less conspicuous agenda, recruiting his brother and family members into the fold, developing a powerful new drug called “Blue Magic” that is far more pure and sold at a lower price, making him very wealthy. Meanwhile, he is making waves and gaining a bit of credibility, but isn’t taken quiet as seriously, though a chance sighting of a brash young, rival gangster on the street changes that.
The Four-Line Moment: In a diner with his family, as Frank discusses business and the art of making money by keeping honest and doing hard work, Lucas glances out the side window and sees a man names Tango walking along the street with his entourage at his sides. He’s a big man, not just in size but in stature and has a flare for drawing attention by playing the role of a hoodlum. Lucas explains to his men at the table that in this world, you’re either somebody or you’re nobody and then suddenly exits the diner with one bodyguard in tow, strolling confidently toward Tango on the sidewalk as the men behind rise up in curiosity and watch out the window. Approaching Tango, he asks for the money the gangster owes him, to which Tango laughs, appearing to shrug him off, even when Franks draws a gun and presses the barrel to the bigger man’s forehead. Tango isn’t impressed and mocks Frank for what he thinks is a veiled threat, though it is anything but and when Lucas fires, it sends a shockwave through the crowd and a message loud and clear about who is somebody and who is nobody now.
The Five-Word Review: An under-rated Ridley Scott film.