Frank Lucas rises to the top of the drug heap during the Vietnam War by importing heroin from South East Asia through some corrupt army personnel.He gets it directly from the source and cuts out the middle-man, thereby ensuring that his product is cheaper and better than the competition on the streets of New York. His rise brings him partners and enemies aplenty, but not many friends. When someone makes an attempt on his life, a Mafioso partner of his tells him, “Your success took a shot at you.”
People with guns taking shots at him, Frank can handle. What it turns out he cannot handle in the end is an honest cop. A man named Richie Roberts who became a pariah among his colleagues because he turned in a million dollars in drug money instead of sharing it with them.
It is easy to think of this movie as another Heat — two great actors on opposite sides of the law. Indeed, one of its most satisfying sequences is a long conversation between Frank and Richie. However, despite these similarities, the movie is not about them. It is about a black man who demonstrated a variant of the American Dream by building a drug empire like one would build a Fortune 500 company. He takes care of the people who work for and with him. He cares for his family and uses their loyalty as an asset in a treacherous business landscape. Most importantly, he understands the importance of not drawing attention to himself. Little wonder that hardly anybody knows who he is until he is at the top of his game.
The thing is, he thinks like a businessman, not a gangster. Like Ebert says in his review, it could make for a case study in a b-school. Indeed, when he explains the concept of trademark infringement to a drug dealer who is taking his stuff and diluting it before selling it, it is the drug dealer who seems to think it is outlandish, not us.
Denzel Washington is pretty much the perfect man to play that role. Apart from the rare negative turn (Training Day), Denzel has been known to play clean-cut good men. Aside from the nature of his business and all that it necessarily entails, Frank is very much that kind of man. While this is a very good performance, it is not a stretch for the actor. His performance reminds me not of his great work in movies like Training Day or Malcolm X, but of Russell Crowe in Gladiator — he does not act so much as embody the part.
Pitted against him is a surprisingly low-key Russell Crowe. Two aspects of Richie’s character stand out through his performance: him calm, unwavering honesty, and his doggedness in getting the job done. In some ways, his work ethic is exactly the same as Frank’s.
Towards the end, when he finally gets his case together and waits outside the church to arrest his man, he has this little smile of triumph. Frank just looks around at all the waiting cops, then at Richie for one long moment. It seems like an arrest, but it feels like a salute.
ps: Oh, and right after the end credits, there’s a single shot that pays homage to The Great Train Robbery. And Goodfellas. If you’re a movie trivia buff like me, you’ll love it. If you aren’t, you’re unlikely to care.