Denzel Washington as always played the challenged man, the good, the righteous man. The man struggling to bring down evil. Now, the first image of American Gangster is of Denzel pouring gasoline all over a man while torturing him before shooting him multiple times.
I began watching American Gangster and although I was excited to see it. I expected the typical cliches of the rise-and-fall of a powerful gangster story. We'd see his humble beginnings, his corruption into crime, his rise to power, his elevating madness, and then his downfall. American Gangster strays away from this formula showing his rise and then leaves the audience with a question mark of whether this character has changed or will continue his life of crime.
This true story starts in 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War. Franks Lucas (Washington) works for Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson. After his death, Lucas assumes Johnson's role as the drug lord of Harlem and Manhattan. He uses 'Nam to his advantage, as he finds a way to go into the region for its vast amounts of pure, cheap heroin. He makes millions and becomes nearly invincible to capture. Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the only honest cop in sea of corruption, plots to bring down Lucas's drug empire.
American Gangster had the potential to be the typical crime thriller story. But thanks to excellent decisions in writing and directing as well as fantastic acting, the film is daring, original and extremely entertaining. Despite being just 20 minutes short of the three hour mark, this film is never boring. It is part of a movement of films of this decade like Munich, The Departed, and Michael Clayton that capture the spirit of the thrillers of the 70s such as The French Connection, Chinatown, Serpico, and The Godfather. Gangster contains these films dark cinematography, brooding tension, and unexpected thrills. The audience doesn't get the big shootout until the way end because until this time, the film is building up to it with little jolts of violence and brilliant character development.
What most keeps this film from falling off the edge is the performance of Denzel Washington. He portrays Lucas as more than a violent man, gangster, and drug lord. His character is more complex then that as he is a human being just as much as Roberts is. He shows only love and respect for his wife and family, and would never give up the chance to lend a hand to his fellow people of Harlem.
This film is directed by Ridley Scott. He mastered the sci-fi genre with Blade Runner, the historical epic with Gladiator, and now the crime thriller with American Gangster. It succeeds as a film that asks deep questions about the fight between good and evil. In a world as full of greed, corruption, and dishonesty as 70s New York, how can you tell who's good and who's bad? After all, your friendly neighborhood cop could be just as bad as the loyal drug lord.