Based on the true story of an enterprising hoodlum who became a billionaire by dominating the Harlem drug scene, Ridley Scotts crime drama has been called Superfly meets Serpico.
Back in the 1970s, when drug trafficking belonged to the Mafia, amiable, soft-spoken Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) chauffeured one of New Yorks most notorious African-American mobsters, Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson. After his boss/mentor dies, Lucas quietly begins building his own empire. Astutely eliminating the middle man, he flies to Thailand to import heroin directly from Southeast Asia, arranging to have kilos hidden in caskets of American soldiers loaded onto military transports flying to New York from Vietnam.
Lucas Blue Magic is not only purer heroin but cheaper; twice the potency, it sells for half as much. Soon hes making up to $1 million a day. While this entrepreneurship baffles and infuriates his rivals, it also catches the attention of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a stubbornly incorruptible New Jersey cop who is determined to put him in prison, despite Lucas bribing the corrupt detective (Josh Brolin) heading New Yorks anti-drug Special Investigations Unit.
Written by Steven Zaillian (Oscar-winner for Schindlers List) from a New York magazine article (The Return of Superfly) by Mark Jacobson, it boosts director Ridley Scott up from his 2006 comedy debacle, A Good Year, also starring Russell Crowe, but, surprisingly, it offers little story-telling originality and gets downright tedious at times. But thats not the fault of the Oscar-winning leads Washington and Crowe who deliver strong performances, as do Josh Brolin and Ruby Dee, as Lucas mother.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, American Gangster is a well-crafted but eerily familiar 7, evoking memories of better gangster movies like The Godfather, Scarface, Heat, GoodFellas and The Departed.