Tony Black’s review:
Over the last decade, Denzel Washington has started experimenting much more with playing bad guys, or at least men of weaker moral fibre and it's a career choice that pays off dividends in American Gangster, Ridley Scott's intense yet epic depiction of the rise and fall of Frank Lucas. Much as Russell Crowe essays a trickier role excellently, this is Washington's film and he owns it - helping Scott craft a crime epic that may not quite rank as a Scorsese great but comes damn near close thanks to a well crafted script, a terrific 60's/70's atmosphere and electric performances.
Much as it might say 'based on a true story', I imagine a fair bit was dramatised here because no way could Frank Lucas have been as frankly cool and badass a crime figure Washington makes him here; Denzel injects the man with a strict sense of moral code, of looking out for family and friends, while also retaining a personal distance - he's quiet, moody, introspective, disliking of grandeur, yet he's also a blaring contradiction as he lives in a grande house, he drives a beautiful car, charms a model-gorgeous wife. Washington expertly depicts a man who wants to be all things - virtuous yet exacting, humble yet rich - but ultimately manages to not quite be any, getting lost in his own maelstrom. It's a fascinating story Scott drips in atmosphere - we feel like we're there in this faux-glamorous New York City of club owners, glitzy boxing matches, Sicilian Mafia bosses, it all comes alive; plus he aptly gets into issues of race and colour, not beating us over the head with the point that Lucas, as a negro, achieved a status briefly no other black man did in organised crime. It's the Crowe side of things that doesn't gel with the piece quite as well, a sense Scott was a bit less interested in his Richie Roberts - the honest cop cast out for refusing to be bought like the rest and sacrificing a relationship with his family to bring Lucas down. It's a tough role, as Crowe successfully makes us root for a very selfish individual, but that's maybe because he's painted a bit too obviously virtuous - Scott doesn't get into the mud enough with him. Luckily we have Josh Brolin's odious crooked cop to prop that up, but as good as Brolin is he plays a vividly 'evil' side of that coin that verges a bit on pantomime at times. Yet these are minor issues, as a superb supporting cast - such names as Idris Elba (recipient of Lucas' most chilling moment), Chiwetel Ejiofor & Carla Gugino, all excellent in small roles - help Crowe & Washington to two memorable performances.
American Gangster then is Ridley Scott's Godfather, and while it may be a few steps behind that classic, it deserves to be regarded as one of the better Hollywood crime epics. Washington and Crowe as usual prove their acting chops with two magnetic performances, telling a quite fascinating story about two very complex men. You'll have to wait until the last 15 minutes before they get a scene together but the long running time is worth the effort. Excellent.