The movie is also able to traffic in a large quantity of moral ambiguity but never lose sight of the human costs of what its characters do for a living. Frank Lucas is successful, intelligent and sympathetic, but the film takes pains to show the end result of people using his product. On the other hand, in many ways Frank is preferable to the corrupt narcotics detectives who attempt to shake him down. At least he is not betraying the same kind of trust that they are. He is exactly who he says he is and providing a product that people have always been willing to buy. Franks treats his own people, at least the ones he perceives as loyal, far better than Richie Roberts’ people treat him for the crime of being a good cop.Celluloid Heroes has a very accurate review of this movie.
Outwardly respectable gangster, Frank Lucas (Washington), makes an excellent living by selling low-priced, high quality heroin on the streets, and surrounding himself with family members who he can trust. He and his entire organization are largely anonymous to the law. Meanwhile, the parallel story of Richie Roberts (Crowe) shows someone who is basically a loser, right down to the point that his extreme honesty has made him anathema to all the other cops. Assigned as the head of the local arm of a federal effort to stop the drug trade at its source, Richie eventually stumbles across Frank Lucas.
This is a very complicated story but the viewer has no trouble following it, which says a lot for the skill and talent of the director, editor, and screenwriters. There is not a big moral to slap us in the face in large part because this is based on a real story and real stories don't always have an easily seen message. However, in thinking the movie over, it seemed to me that at the base it came down to honesty.
Frank Lucas never lies to himself about what he does. He insulates himself and those he loves from it but that isolation is different from lying. This is seen in subtle things such as his stillness for a moment when his nephew tells him that he is giving up his lifelong dream of becoming a professional baseball player because, "I want to be like you, Uncle Frank." It is subtle, but it is there. Frank knows that is not a worthy goal. Another telling point about honesty is made when Richie's ex-wife confronts him with an unpalatable bit of truth about him. His reaction is quite telling. Similarly, the end of the movie (which I will not mention for fear of spoiling it) is only possible because Frank at last comes up against a completely honest man in Richie Roberts and that is the one quality that they can appreciate about each other.