Reviewer's grade: B+
Like the drug kingpin at the center of "American Gangster," this crime thriller is tough, exciting and occasionally spellbinding - but what it really craves is respectability. Based on a New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson, it tells the true-life story of Frank Lucas, who rose to underworld prominence in the early Seventies by selling high-grade heroin on the streets of Harlem.
Denzel Washington portrays Lucas with the actor's customary smoothness, with Russell Crowe in rumpled mode as the straight-arrow New Jersey prosecutor hot on his trail. Employing documentary-like camerawork and naturalistic lighting, director Ridley Scott beautifully mimics the gritty urban stylistics of the Seventies, hearkening back to the days when New York was a cesspool of sin and corruption.
Despite an indulgent running time of 157 minutes, "American Gangster" isn't quite the epic it aspires to be, but it does make for a raw and raucous time at the movies. R