Featuring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe at the top of their game, "American Gangster" is an instant classic in the bloody crime genre.
The film focuses on Frank Lucas' (Washington) rise to power in Harlem and eventually all of New York in the 1970s as the leading distributor of heroin. Unlike his competitors, Lucas imports his drugs directly from Asia using U.S. military transports which allows for a better product at a lower price. Lucas is smart about his business, relying heavily on his family and public appearance to distance himself from his product and the destruction it causes. Unlike others in the business, Lucas is careful to dress like a businessman and not like an extravagant pimp. Because of this, it takes years for the police even to realize Lucas exists.
Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the scrappy cop who finally connects all the dots and links the Lucas family with the drug trade. Roberts is one of the few honest cops in the city, illustrated early in "Gangsters" when Roberts and his partner find almost a million dollars in the back of drug dealer's car. Instead of taking the money, Roberts turns in the loot which ruffles the feathers of hundreds of dirty cops on the force. But because of his honest reputation, Roberts is asked to start a special drug task force designed to take down the top echelons of the drug world.
Director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") weaves the men's stories seamlessly as Roberts obsesses over Lucas and the case while Lucas is unaware Roberts even exists until the final scenes of the movie. As Lucas lives in the lap of luxury surrounded by family and sports stars, Roberts has to wallow through the shady parts of the city while fighting his ex-wife for custody of his son.
Despite early buzz for Washington as an Oscar favorite, Crowe is the real star here. Crowe portrays Roberts as an everyman, someone who has faults and is by no means perfect, but who does what is right despite some overwhelming obstacles. Crowe never forces it. Roberts never comes off as anything more than a regular guy driven to do his job while still keeping his conscience.
Washington takes a different and equally effective route as Lucas, playing him as a waiting time bomb. For most of the movie, Lucas seems to be a caring family man just trying to make a living, but in the movements when his temper gets the better of him, a violent psychopath emerges. In two scenes, Lucas brutally beats family members for crossing him, one of whom he nearly kills by repeatedly crushing his head under a piano lid.
Despite the countless murders and thousands of lives ruined, Lucas comes off as an almost underdog whom you root for. Despite the vile nature of the work, it was pretty clear Lucas was just part of the depraved system. In the end, the crooked cops are the true villains of "Gangster."
Like "The Departed" last year, "Gangster" is a worthy addition to rich history of gritty crime epics. Driven by the outstanding performances of Washington and Crowe, "Gangster" should please audiences looking for more something more than usual mindless actioner.
"American Gangster" is rated R for violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality. It has a running time of 158 minutes.