American Gangster (Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe) – While it came frighteningly close to overstaying its welcome, American Gangster is the gripping story of Frank Lucas’ rise as the king of the drug lords in 1960s’ and 70s’ Harlem. Stunningly portrayed by America’s best current actor, Denzel Washington, Lucas is strikingly evil outside his family. Lured by the wealth and power, the Lucas clan moves north to form the nucleus of an African American crime family that co-opts the Mafia in buying and distributing high-grade heroin from Vietnam. With chutzpah and bravado not seen before, Lucas undersells every competitor by bypassing the middlemen with the help of the military and buying off the cops to distribute his Blue Angel brand of heroin. His nemesis is Richie Roberts, leader of a secret and elite anti-drug unit. Played by Russell Crowe, Australia’s and perhaps the world’s leading actor, Roberts is a principled, but flawed (he’s a womanizer and a mediocre parent) outcast who is relentless in his pursuit of organized crime and corrupt cops. It takes a while for him to identify Lucas as the most powerful figure in the underworld, but once he does, it’s a race (or at least a trot) to the finish. Lucas’ end comes fittingly, and the postscript is delectable in that it presents Washington and Crowe in scenes together. It takes more than two hours for that to happen, however. Gangster is directed by British uber-orchestrator Ridley Scott, who also worked with Crowe in the Academy Award Best Picture Gladiator and the forgettable A Good Year. This film has an epic, gritty feel to it as well as monstrous (and maybe Academy Award-worthy) performances by the principals. American Gangster is worth the time and effort but make sure you get lots of popcorn and settle deep in your chair.
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