Given the colorful liberties most movies take with real-life stories, Denzel Washington in American Gangster is a curiosity. Gangs Of New York screenwriter Steven Zaillian based his script on a 2000 New York Magazine profile of '70s heroin magnate Frank Lucas, depicted as a larger-than-life, charismatic loudmouth who pointedly threatens to kill journalist Mark Jacobson if their interview goes wrong. Washington, on the other hand, dials him down to a quiet, internal businessman who wears subdued suits and scolds his underlings over their movie-pimp attire. Director Ridley Scott is going for '70s grime and sprawling '70s pacing, but Washington comes across as a slumming '90s film protagonist, a New Jack City star enduring the cast of Serpico with barely contained contempt.
Taking up about where 1997's Hoodlum left off, American Gangster follows the rise of Frank Lucas, former protégé and chauffeur of Harlem overlord Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. When Johnson dies of natural causes in 1968, Lucas gravely weighs his options, then travels to Bangkok, where he makes connections with the local syndicates and the U.S. military. Before long, bribed soldiers are smuggling thousands of kilos of uncut heroin into the country for him, and his "Blue Magic" brand of dope is flooding the market, purer and cheaper than anything else available. Attempting to build a crime family worthy of his insanely profitable product, Lucas imports many of his own brothers and cousins from North Carolina (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common, among others), knowing they'll be more grateful—and more loyal—than the locals. Meanwhile, a painfully honest Essex County detective (Russell Crowe) loses a friend to Blue Magic and starts investigating, which takes him off his turf and into New York City, where the corrupt cops (particularly an endlessly greedy slimebag played by Josh Brolin) are far creepier than the crooks.
Like David Fincher with Zodiac earlier this year, Scott and Zaillian know their rise-and-fall crime story is familiar cinematic grist, so they compensate by slowing down the action, keeping the tension level low, and taking an observational, in-the-moment stance that gives them time to build characters as well as criminal cases. Normally, Scott loves his flash-bang setpieces, but he proves equally adept at low-key verisimilitude and long-form storytelling, the kind that sprawls out over years of incidents that only gradually add up to a powerful whole. Only Washington stands out; he's charming, intense, and charismatic as ever, and his inevitable direct confrontation with Crowe is appropriately breathless, but he still feels like an artifact of the wrong era. Then again, that's just one more element that distinguishes American Gangster from the endless stream of similar films in its canon.