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:: American Gangster

A classic and potentially powerful structure in storytelling is to pit two powerful figures against one another. Most interesting in the form of it used here is that the two men aren't aware of each other for most of the drama. When they finally lay eyes on each other for the first time, their fates are sealed. “American Gangster” is based on a true story.

Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) can be as brutal as any mob killer. He starts out as a collector and personal driver for Harlem drug kingpin Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams). When Bumpy dies it is for Frank to carve out his own operation with the benefits of Bumpy's tutorship. The first thing he looks at is the chain of middlemen involved in bringing heroin onto the streets. He wants it pure, both from the standpoint of not having it “cut” and in dealing directly with his supplier.

Soon, the business is expanding so much he has to import his family from North Carolina so as to have the necessary employees whom he can trust. Chief among them is cousin Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who takes quickly to the druglord lifestyle until his tendency for extravaganza is brought down a notch by Frank. This gives Frank the freedom to meet and marry Miss Puerto Rico of 1970 (Lymari Nadal); deal with a high class Italian rival Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) who wants a piece of Frank's proceeds; and take action against the inevitable associate who cuts the product to increase his profits. His biggest problem, however, is in the person of Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) who keeps trying to find an angle to either get cut in or bring Frank down.

While all this is being set up, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a detective with the Jersey Police Department, is making a different kind of name for himself. On the purely personal side, he's studying for a law degree and dealing with his wife Laurie's (Carla Gugino) unwaverable intention to divorce him and take their boy away with her to Las Vegas for a new life. On the work side, he is held by his peers in a mixture of disbelief, respect and disdain for having turned in nearly a million unmarked dollars in a drug bust, especially as other cops were on the take.

Frank flies under Richie's radar until he breaks conservative form and pimps out by wearing a chinchilla coat and hat (gifts from his wife) to an Ali vs Frazier worl title fight. That makes him a target for the first time.

American Gangster isn't all blistering action; it has bite and timely relevance. Frank and Richie are both outsiders playing by rules everyone else ignores. It is simply one hell of an exciting movie and director Ridley Scott, at the top of his game, directs like a man possessed.

What is truly engaging are the two performances of Washington and Crowe, and the ability of these two leads to allow their characters to toy with us. It is that dynamic that keeps the audience wrapped up in this story for so long. The climax also allows Washington and Crowe to finally occupy the screen together. It reminds a little of DeNiro and Pacino in Heat. What it is though, is one of the best films we will see in 2008, showcasing two of the premier actors in the business doing what they do best.

American Gangster lives up, if not exceeds, the hype on all fronts. It is engaging from start to finish and you never feel the 157 minutes run time, which is a big compliment to give. Composer Marc Streitenfeld's score serves up some impressive beats and a good share of originality. A brilliant movie.