**** out of *****
Some movies can’t help but inspire impossible expectations. When I heard that Ridley Scott, one of the best directors working today, was making a based-on-a-true-story crime picture called “American Gangster” with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe – two of the best actors working today – I started envisioning (and hoping for) a masterpiece along the lines of “GoodFellas,” “Heat” or “The Departed.”
Only time will tell whether or not “American Gangster” is on the same level as those films, but what I know for the time being is that this is a very good film, featuring two of the year’s best performances.
The film’s story, as has been pointed out by numerous other critics, is quintessentially American.
Frank Lucas (Washington) starts out as a driver for Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). When Bumpy dies, the ambitious Lucas takes over the Harlem drug trade, circumventing the Mafia and going directly to Thailand to import the purest heroin money can buy. In a very short time, Lucas becomes the most powerful man in Harlem and arguably in all of New York City.
And what is more, Lucas is basically untouchable. He keeps a low profile, employs only his own family members and keeps the cops on his payroll.
On the other side of the law is New Jersey cop Richie Roberts (Crowe), a man with so much integrity that he turns in $1 million in unmarked drug money to the police department instead of taking it for himself.
Roberts’ ethics make him a pariah among his fellow cops, but his tenacity becomes an asset when the American government puts Roberts in charge of a special task force charged with going after the drug trade.
“American Gangster” alternates between Lucas and Roberts, slowly dialing up the story’s tension as the inevitable meeting between the two men draws closer.
As Lucas, Washington gives another performance that defies simple description or praise.
In Washington’s hands, Lucas is a charismatic force in which charm and brutality coexist. The opening scene, where Lucas shoots a man only a few seconds after lighting him on fire, exemplifies his character; he’s not afraid of violence, but he also isn’t needlessly cruel.
And Crowe (who already gave a compelling performance this year in “3:10 to Yuma”) more than holds his own against Washington’s more ostentatious character and performance, infusing Roberts with a doggedness that makes him a worthy adversary for Lucas.
If “American Gangster” has a fault, it’s that it relies too strictly on a documentary style that lacks the immediacy of a film like “GoodFellas.”
But maybe I’m expecting a bit too much of “American Gangster.” As is, this is a superb film. It is one of the best of the year and a worthy edition to the gangster film genre.