*American Gangster (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Remember how oh-my-god cool it was to hear, all those years back, that Michael Mann was gonna get Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together onscreen for the first time in his movie Heat? And then they were hardly together at all except for that one scene, but it turned out to be OK because that one scene was incredible?
American Gangster is like that, except it's got the combustible combination of Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington onscreen together for the, well, second time. (They first shared the screen in 1995's Virtuosity.)
But you get the point: Ridley Scott's American Gangster brings together Crowe and Washington, both of whom stalk the screen, as they always do, as if The Movies were invented for them. But they don't actually get the opportunity to face off onscreen until more than two hours into the film's two-hour-and-40-minute runtime and that's fine. Their concurrent stories run parallel and keep you in a state of constant suspense and dread.
Crowe's Richie Roberts is a New Jersey cop, a rough-edged, working-class guy who's trying to better himself by studying law at night school. His colleagues already think he's "better" than he needs to be: He's scorned as a "boy scout" for actually following the law. But he's also a cocky bastard who hangs out with a childhood friend who's now a Mafioso. Oh, and he's kinda mean to his ex-wife and kinda ignores his kid. When he stumbles onto Frank Lucas' criminal endeavors, he latches onto the case like a bulldog and won't let go until he brings Lucas down.
Washington's Frank Lucas was a driver for the godfather of Harlem, until the godfather died and Frank, looking to better himself, took over the operation. He comes up with a scheme for driving up his drug business by eliminating the middleman and importing heroin himself directly from Thai suppliers. His business and marketing acumen is astonishing, and before long he's selling junk twice as good as anything else on the street at half the price.
It's the American dream of entrepreneurship, of making customers happy really happy, in this case while raking in the dough. It's win-win. Oh, except that Frank is utterly ruthless and won't hesitate to put a bullet in the brain of anyone who steps on his toes. Still, he believes himself a gentleman, and he is, in his own perverse way. He's even good to his mother.
This is all based on a true story that went down in the early '70s. Frank and Richie are real; the now-elderly Lucas actually consulted on the film. But the ring of truth comes not from its factualness but from Steven Zaillian's brilliant script and from Scott's production, which is committed to authenticity.
Scott shot in real, unfakeable New York City and Thai locations no Toronto or Hawaii stand-ins here and Zaillian (along with Crowe and Washington) created two fascinatingly contradictory and complicated men in the cinematic Richie and Frank. You can't entirely hate Frank, for all his terribleness, and you can't entirely like Richie, for all his virtues. And you also can't forget them.