American Gangster (2007)

(In theaters, November 2007) Sometimes, it’s a relief to watch a film and realize that it’s made by professionals for a wide audience. This dramatic biography of 1970s-era drug kingpin Frank Lucas may take a few liberties with the truth (read the original article to spot a few of them), but it’s a slick piece of cinema that never feels too long despite clocking in at a touch more than two and a half hours. Chief among the film’s assets is the unflappable Denzel Washington, always the coolest guy on-screen despite the strong presence of Russell Crowe as his policeman antagonist. Washington is so compelling that it’s hard to think of him as a bad guy, even as he shoots people in the forehead or beats an associate with a piano. The other big star of the film is the period re-creating of early-seventies New York, completely convincing even as it avoids flashy set-pieces. American Gangster deserves its iconic title, and if the result isn’t quite up to Goodfellas or Scarface, it’s close enough to warrant a passing comparison. Without insisting on it, it actually portrays a thick mess of police corruption, criminal economics, easy racism and power relationships. The careful construction of the story makes it irrelevant that the two lead actors don’t meet face-to-face until a few minutes before the end: few moments are wasted along the way. While I’m not sure that the film will sustain multiple viewings as the other best-of-class movies in the gangster category, it’s good enough to deserve at least one good look.

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