The crime epic “American Gangster” is a lot of things, but “unique” isn’t one of them. Director Ridley Scott purposely conjures up the ghettoized look and feel of Seventies cinema “ “The French Connection,” “Serpico,” “The Godfather” and so on “ in this real-life story of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas and the cop who eventually brought him to justice.
But that’s OK. What “American Gangster” lacks in newness, it makes up for in know-how.
Portrayed by Denzel Washington with his characteristic coolness, Frank leads the Harlem mob, envisioning heroin trafficking taken to a new level. He travels into the opiate-rich jungles of Thailand and, cutting out the need for a middleman, conspires with a United States military connection to smuggle heroin directly into the New York area.
It isn’t long before Frank’s “Blue Magic” heroin has become the drug of choice in the Big Apple. Frank’s wealth is in sharp contrast to the slovenly vibe of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the hard-nosed New Jersey lawman hot on his trail.
“American Gangster” is clearly as ambitious as its dope-dealing antihero, crammed with side characters and subplots, with middling results. Here’s the rub, though: Unmet aspirations aside, the film is a big, meaty, kick-ass crime thriller. Director Scott dumps the audience in the middle of a fierce, confusing underworld and forces us to piece things together, providing exposition in tantalizing fragments and dribbles. While the film doesn’t fully capture the grubby soul of its Seventies-era predecessors, it still delivers the vicarious thrills that make gangster flicks so much fun.