American Gangster is a movie with a familiar argument: Organized crime is outsider capitalism. As archetypal as its title, Ridley Scott's would-be epic aspires to enshrine Harlem dope king Frank Lucas in Hollywood heaven, heir to Scarface and The Godfather. Denzel Washington plays Lucas as a combination of ruthless thug and gentlemanly striver. It's 1968, and Lucas's crime boss, Bumpy Johnson, is complaining that corporations are pushing out the middleman. Bumpy then drops dead, leaving Lucas to create a new empire—by eliminating the middleman. Rather than dealing with the mob, Lucas figures out a way to import high-grade heroin directly from Indochina. Then he takes Harlem by storm, selling smack that's twice as good for half the price. To balance the moral equation, Steven Zaillian's script introduces a Lucas nemesis in the form of actual police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Whereas Lucas is a visionary, Roberts is a man of crazy integrity. Busting a bookie, he finds a car stuffed with unmarked bills and actually brings it in as evidence—much to his partner's dismay. The world capital of smack and police corruption—such was disco-era New York. Still, for all of Scott's discreet period markers and cleverly cobbled-together locations, he doesn't get the period's putrid exhilaration—the sense of irreversible decay and giddy disorder. His movie never spins out of control.Ê
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