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American Gangster Movie Poster

American Gangster
Three and a Half out of Five Stars
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller
Rated: R
Directed by:
Ridley Scott
Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Ruby Dee, Lymari Nadal, Carla Gugino, Common, RZA
Released by: Universal Pictures

In Short: This based-on-fact tale of 1970s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas is a gritty, compelling cops-and-robbers thriller that features two Oscar-winning actors going toe-to-toe, with satisfying results.

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Harlem's Favorite Son

Living a Real Life of Crime
by Jenny Peters

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, one man changed the face of drug running in America. Frank Lucas, an African-American who moved from North Carolina to Harlem, learned the gangster trade from a powerful underworld boss, and after the death of the boss, Lucas took it to a whole new level. “American Gangster” tells the compelling story of his real-life rise and fall, with Denzel Washington in the lead role, and Russell Crowe as Detective Richie Roberts, the cop who brought down his empire.

Russell Crowe in American Gangster
Denzel Washington in American Gangster

Director Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Thelma and Louise”) uses those two Oscar-winning actors – and adds a third, casting Cuba Gooding, Jr. as notorious Harlem bad guy Nicky Barnes – to great effect, building a story that explores the personal motivations of both men, framed against the turbulent backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil unrest that it caused in America.

Adding to the fascinating story is the fact that Lucas used his whole family to create his heroin empire, modeling his business structure on the Mafia’s same system of protecting their own. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a terrific performance as Lucas’ mistake-prone brother, and 83-year-old Ruby Dee as his aging mother reminds us that, once a great actor, always a great actor.

Common, Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor in American Gangster
Lymari Nadal in American Gangster

At nearly three hours, the film does run a bit long for some tastes, but if films like “The Godfather,” “Serpico,” or “Goodfellas” are on your list of favorites, then it is likely that “American Gangster,” with its dense layers and fascinating characterizations of both criminals and cops, is going to be a satisfyingly good time spent sitting in the dark.

(Updated 11/02/07 NJ)

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