Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is a bad guy. The opening scene makes it clear that when Frank commits murder, he does it very, very thoroughly. Frank is a driver, bodyguard and bagman for a vicious gangster. But when the boss dies, Frank, who has been learning the ropes, has his sights set on taking over.
Then there's the good guy -- tough, hard-working Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), about as straight and clean a cop as New York has ever seen. When Richie and his partner find close to a million dollars at a crime scene, he insists that they turn it in. The partner is nonplussed; the cops back at the station -- most of whom are far from clean -- now refer to Richie as a "Boy Scout."
Good guy, of course, will eventually meet up with bad guy. But writer Steven Zaillian and director Ridley Scott take their time, letting this lengthy film (157 minutes) play out in an almost leisurely manner.
Starting in Harlem in 1968 and working its way through the 1970s, American Gangster presents the separate stories of Frank and Richie, then slowly brings them together. Frank's story is about the building of his heroin empire, from production in Southeast Asia to sales on the streets of Harlem. To move his product from Asian poppy fields to the grimy New York apartments where it's processed, Frank enlists some devious help from the U.S. Army. Richie's story, meanwhile, entails trouble with his partner, trouble with other cops, trouble at home.
In an interesting bit of character development, the script pauses to show a couple of different sides of the protagonist and antagonist. (Sorry, you'll have to decide which is which.) Frank is seen to be a nice boy when he goes home to South Carolina to bring his mama and his brothers up north. Smiling away, and truly happy about his newfound wealth, he gives Mama a big house and jobs to his brothers -- as members of his drug-running crew. Richie goes so far over the edge into avoiding trouble, he threatens to turn in a cop who's become a hophead.
Both Washington and Crowe hit bull's-eyes in their performances, with Washington usually wearing a grim look, and Crowe keeping his face hard to read, but leaning toward softness.
When Richie is asked to head up a New York drug unit for the feds -- with honest cops -- the beginnings of a trail to Frank take shape. Up to that point, neither man knew of each other's existence. But the feds have seen a spike in pure drugs on the streets, and they know that the Mob's usual suspects aren't responsible. So begins a search for some rogue dealer. Viewers will already know who it is.
Scott fills the film with period references, most of them coming from TV sets, such as Muhammad Ali getting ready to take on Joe Frazier or, later, Richard Nixon announcing a ceasefire in Vietnam. He and Zaillian also include a terrific side story about a posse of crooked cops who are working on both sides of the law, and keep bumping into both Frank and Richie. (Unfortunately, other subplots -- Richie's family is falling apart, a nightclub owner, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., is cutting and reselling Frank's quality product -- just clutter the film.)
Frank's empire continues to build, even though Nixon's war announcement could threaten his supply source. Then, while methodically putting his case together, Richie starts to get lucky.
And just as Pacino and De Niro finally met near the climax of Heat, Frank and Richie at last face each other, quietly laying down their cards, making deals, self-assurance oozing from each of them. It's a superb moment in an excellent film. Yeah, it does run on a bit, but the characters are fascinating and the tension level remains high. American Gangster provides a look at one of those worlds that you love peeking into but never want to be a part of.