Some have described “American Gangster,” the fascinating new crime epic from Ridley Scott, as the black “Scarface.” Don’t believe it. While Brian De Palma’s brash Cuban druglord Tony Montana left a lasting impression on the hip-hop generation, he remains an engrossing, flamboyant caricature. “American Gangster” feels more authentic, unburdened by the over-the-top bravado that Al Pacino brought to his role as the coke-crazed Latin king of Miami.
As Frank Lucas, the real-life gangster who presided over New York for seven lucrative years beginning in 1968, Denzel Washington lacks none of Montana’s confidence, but dispenses with most of the swagger. He is smart, cunning and deadly, and at the peak of his powers held sway over an empire worth more than $250 million. Even then, he played the game with a minimum of flash, eager to fly below the radar of cops who would rather shake down dealers than bring them to justice.
Lucas is a magnetic figure, even as he guns down a rival (Idris Elba) at point-blank range in a crowded Harlem street. Washington plays him with self-assured ease, punctuating his calculated cool with telltale bursts of murderous rage.
He is, in some ways, the polar opposite of Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the incorruptible police officer assigned to bring him down. Roberts is unkempt, unstylish and so singularly dedicated to his work that his personal life is in shambles. But both are intent on playing the game the right way — it’s just that their sense of the rules is so different.
Rarely is promise fulfilled as thoroughly as it is in “American Gangster,” which pits two of the finest actors of their generation against each other in a riveting cat-and-mouse rivalry. Scott paces the film unhurriedly, defining his leads in telling detail. Roberts discovers $1 million in unmarked drug money and returns it to the property room, making himself a workplace pariah worthy of another Pacino character, Frank Serpico. Lucas laughs at such idealism, but he’s enough of a dutiful son to buy a custom-built mansion for his mother.
Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) resist making Lucas a hero — at the end of the day, he’s still a criminal willing to kill just to prove a point — but he has a seductive presence on screen, as Washington’s characters usually do. Roberts is gruff and burly, and the perfect foil for the ultra-smooth Lucas. It comes as no surprise that the two form a grudging respect for each other; each, in his fashion, seems to deserve it.
American Gangster ****
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal
Written by Steven Zaillian, Mark Jacobson
Directed by Ridley Scott
Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes