American Gangster an epic, true crime drama, that although not entirely original in its premise is excellent in its execution.
On top of being a gritty crime movie, American Gangster is also a well made period movie thanks to the great costume design by Janty Yates, and the equally impressive production design by Arthur Max. The soundtrack of 1970's R'N'B soul classics is a treat.
American Gangster chronicles the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the driver, bodyguard, and protégé of Harlem kingpin Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III, uncredited).
After Bumpy passes away, Lucas takes over his operation, soaring to unparalleled heights with his innovative approach to the drug trade: he cuts out the middle man and purchases heroin straight from the jungles of south-east Asia, and then uses corrupt military personnel serving in the Vietnam War to transport the drugs back to America.
Once back home, Lucas peddles his new product to smashing results, infuriating the Italian mafia and the corrupt police who feel that the natural order of things have been disrupted.
Russell Crowe co-stars as Richie Roberts, a straight shooting cop who is despised and vilified by his fellow officers after he turns in one million dollars of dirty, unmarked cash. After his corrupt partner (John Ortiz) dies from a heroin overdose, Roberts decides to track down just who is responsible for the new wave of potent heroin flooding the streets.
Director Ridley Scott - in his second stab at the gangster movie following the 1989 Yakuza based Black Rain - takes Steve Zaillian's rich, character driven screenplay, and weaves all of its elements very well.
The beauty of Zaillian's script is that neither man is written as black and white portrayals of good and evil. Both characters have been well researched, and exceptionally portrayed thanks to the depth and talent which their actors give them.
Along with editor Pietro Scalia, Scott has created an impressively structured film, which flows very easily and quickly despite it massive runtime. Scott also does well by not glorifying drug use or violence, even though both subjects are prominently featured and unflinchingly shot.
However, the films biggest strength comes from the performances of its lead actors.
Denzel Washington gives a tenacious portrayal of Lucas, his steadfast ferocity held back by a cunning restraint, his performance is a lethal combination of style, intelligence, danger, and compassion which Washington carefully mixes into a lethal brew, and spectacularly let loose on the screen.
In the less flashy, yet undoubtedly more interesting role is Russell Crowe, who -in his third collaboration with Ridley Scott - brings a stern authority and credibility, along with a beefy presence and pitch perfect accent to the part of Richie Roberts.
Surrounding Crowe and Washington is a strong supporting cast. Josh Brolin (who is having a career defining year) is sinisterly slick as a corrupt New York Special Detective; Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a solid performance as Lucas' impressionable younger brother; Ruby Dee is great as Lucas' elderly mother; and a surprisingly memorable (yet frustratingly minimal) turn by Cuba Gooding Jr. rounds out an excellent ensemble.
A flaw in the film is that there is much more story to be told. A rushed ending which brings forth some interesting facts could easily fill another hour of screen time (if not a whole feature film). Hopefully a sequel will be forthcoming, yet it is highly doubtful.