“If you have money and a nurse to look after you, you could live by taking heroin like a jolly good cigar. I don’t recommend it.” This is just one of many, many insights from Ridley Scott’s flat-out commentary on his New York dope-opera. Also on the chat-track, the writer Steven Zaillian reveals it took him 18 months to ink the first draft. No wonder – the true-life rise and fall of ’70s Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is epic, alright. Building a drug empire using killer market force, Lucas smuggled pure heroin throughout the Vietnam war by – in an irresistible metaphor – stowing the drug in the flag-wrapped and homeward-bound coffins of dead US soldiers.
Both the one and two-disc editions sport theatrical and extended cuts (18 extra minutes, so grab another cushion). Neither version quite manages to seamlessly mesh Lucas’ compelling story with that of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the cop on his tail, but Scott’s period stylistics and slick technique combine to create a classy thriller that apes the street-grit authenticity of Serpico, The Godfather and The French Connection. Meanwhile, a truly magnetic Washington leads one of the best supporting casts in years ( Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr).
Best on the two-disc edition’s 78-minute Making Of and Case Files are the fascinating interviews with the real Roberts and Lucas, who recalls a time when he could make a million dollars a day on the street. Cast and crew are also on hand, discussing the script, editing, sound and how hard it is to run up stairs in Levi 501s.