Despite its grandiose title and being based on a true story, American Gangster is not the definitive American gangster film. Only half the film concerns the gangster element, although it is the classic rise to power story through boldness, cunning and strategic brutality. The other half of the film is the archetypal story of an increasingly shunned cop who overcomes the odds to dispense justice. This aspect of American Gangster, plus its 70s New York and New Jersey urban settings, make it evoke The French Connection and Serpico more than The Godfather or Goodfellas.
Denzel Washingon as drug baron Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe as the incorruptible cop Richie Roberts, who brings Lucas down, both give fine yet safe performances. American Gangster may have been a better film if directed by Michael Mann (Heat) or David Fincher (Zodiac) but it is still a satisfying 2 and a half hours of entertainment courtesy of director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down). Details concerning the institutionalised corruption in the New York police force and how the Vietnam War was used to smuggle heroin into the USA give it a little extra bite.
Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 295, 2008