NEW YORK - A group of retired federal drug enforcement agents sued NBC Universal on Wednesday, saying the movie "American Gangster" falsely portrayed them as villains in the story of a Harlem heroin trafficker.
The suit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, claims that the movie defamed hundreds of DEA agents and New York City police officers by claiming at the end that Frank Lucas' collaboration with prosecutors "led to the convictions of three-quarters of New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency."
Lucas, played by Denzel Washington in the film, became a government informant after his conviction in 1975, and his tips led to the prosecutions of several fellow drug dealers.
According to the lawsuit, no DEA agents or New York City police officers were ever convicted as a result of tips provided by Lucas.
"This is absolutely off the wall," said Dominic Amorosa, a prosecutor in the federal case against Lucas in 1975 who now represents the DEA agents. "I don't know what these people were thinking, but they are going to pay for it."
A Universal Pictures spokesman, Michael Moses, said in a written statement that the lawsuit is "entirely without merit."
"'American Gangster' does not defame these or any federal agents," he said, adding that the corrupt law enforcers depicted in the film were supposed to be New York police officers, not DEA agents.
In a Dec. 7 letter to Amorosa, NBC Universal Senior Vice President David Burg called the film a "fictionalized work," although at other times Universal spokesmen have said they have "every confidence that the material facts are conveyed truthfully."
Former DEA agents Jack Toal, Gregory Korniloff and Louis Diaz filed the class-action suit on behalf of themselves and 400 other agents who worked in the city between 1973 and 1985. They asked for at least $50 million in punitive damages.
"Most of the movie is not true," said Toal, who identified himself as one of the agents who worked with Lucas after he became an informant. "If they had said, 'This is based on a false story,' it would have been a lot better."
A DEA spokesman in Washington, Garrison Courtney, declined to comment, other than to confirm that none of its agents were ever charged with wrongdoing in the case.
New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said he wasn't aware of any NYPD officers ever prosecuted in connection with Lucas.
"Hollywood is famous for distorting reality," Browne wrote in an e-mail. He brushed off the idea that the department would get involved in the case. "If we sued every time the movies made reality unrecognizable, there would be time for nothing else."
Korniloff said in the suit that he was a lead agent assigned to the case and was present when agents and police officers raided Lucas' home in Teaneck, N.J. in 1975 - a scene depicted in "American Gangster."
In the Ridley Scott film, which was released in November and also featured Russell Crowe and Josh Brolin, corrupt narcotics agents shoot the drug dealer's dog, assault his wife and brazenly steal currency stashed in the house while making the arrest.
The suit said that in real life, the search was carried out legally; nearly $585,000 in currency was seized in accordance with a valid search warrant.