Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) was raised in the shadow of crime, keeping in line with his elder hoodlums, learning the ways of the business. Now ready to take over, Lucas travels to the conflict in Vietnam in search of pure heroin to bring to the New York City streets, employing a serpentine sense of restrain to best suit his needs while he rose to success and created an empire. Detective Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a clean cop on a dirty force, looking to rid the city of narcotics. Unexpectedly led to Lucas's streets, Roberts mounts a full-scale investigation, piecing together a case bit by bit to bring the kingpin to justice.
The first thing detected in "American Gangster" is the picture's self-discipline. Ridley Scott is not a filmmaker known for his delicate ways, often electing a full fireworks display when only a charcoal snake is necessary. "Gangster" shows the filmmaker turning a corner in his career, dialing down his penchant for overstated theatrics and treating Lucas's journey with muted respect. It's classic storytelling, setting aside his instincts and traditionally lush color pallet to stay focused on the paralleling plots, delighting in the way they smash into each other dramatically, not visually.
Yes, "Gangster" is a film you've seen before: "Blow" with serious coin, "Scarface" with better suits, or any other drug-centric saga that takes the viewer on a ride through time and swelling power. Scott doesn't challenge the material as much as allows it space, which, over the 150-minute running time, can become a little sluggish. It's a sprawling epic with crooked cops, finger-snap turns of gunfire, and family issues, but nothing requires the film to be this long. An easy 20 minutes could've been shorn without anyone missing the beats, but Scott is in this for the long run, and I can't discourage a habitual style-abuser his moment of repentance.
I could sit here and write about specific scenes that thrilled me, but, again, they are familiar sights: Frank exerting his power or Ritchie grabbing that crucial clue. It's pure routine, but Scott has an amazing eye for the details, and that extends to the performances as much as it does to the globe-trotting narrative.
I've been critical of Denzel Washington's acting efforts before, and I still feel the performer has a profound fear of stretching. "Gangster" plays to Washington's strengths of resolute blunt force and thousand-dollar-suit charm. He's become the John Wayne of his generation: perfecting his one acting face of mild displeasure and sticking to his guns the rest of his career.
Russell Crowe has the more fluid role, accepted by an actor who desires an opening to tinker with various personalities. Ritchie is an unusually mousy character for Crowe, but his performance discovers the right contrast between constant vocational do-goodery and the shambles of his personal life, which flame out through neglectful parenting and one-night-stands. Crowe also is allowed the more procedural moments of the film, which involve the audience more than Frank's distancing and familiar high-life.
"American Gangster" is a dependable crime saga that neither disappoints nor challenges the genre. It's steady Hollywood storytelling from a former directorial master, acted with aplomb by two superstars, and tangos with enough ice cold criminal idolatry to fuel at least ten rap albums.