Mitchell Akselrad: 4.5 of 5 stars

Angela Cesere
(Courtesy of Universal)

There’s power embedded in a title like “American Gangster.” It’s a power supported by two charismatic leads and a company of talented performers. It’s a power evoked by a screenplay efficient in its construction. It’s a power inherent to director Ridley Scott’s name.

Power is an obvious theme in “American Gangster,” along with family, values and corporate organization. These are the virtues on which America was founded, and Steven Zaillian’s script, based on the New York Magazine article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson, makes sure to sew them into the fabric of every scene. The strength of the screenplay is at the heart of the movie’s success. Its patience and complexity are also rare: With a 157-minute runtime and slow but articulate climb toward the climax, this is not the norm.

Most important, you won’t think to look at your watch. The film stars two of Hollywood’s most gifted actors – your eyes never leave the screen because you don’t want to miss a single twitch of the mouth or glean of the eye. Every moment is captivating. It’s Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, but it’s also Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Inside Man”), Josh Brolin (“Planet Terror” and “Goonies” fame), John Hawkes (“Deadwood”) and Yul Vazquez (“Bad Boys II”), to name just a few.

It might be inevitable, and even a little trite, to mention “The Godfather” here. Not because both the greatest American movie and “American Gangster” are about gangsters. And not because they both cover long stretches of time as main characters rise and fall. “Gangster” pays homage in theme rather than technical pastiche. Who’s more right? A man who deals in illegal products and death but honors a code of conduct, or a man who respects the law by all means but cannot be loyal to those in his own world? “Gangster” isn’t really about drug dealers and cops. It’s about how pride and ethical conviction protect and destroy the family.

One brilliant scene in “Gangster” finds protagonist Frank Lucas (Denzel) and his nephew Stevie (rapper T.I.) relaxing on a Thanksgiving afternoon. Stevie is a good enough baseball player to earn a spot on the Yankees, but he tells his uncle, “I don’t wanna play baseball no more . I wanna be you.” Frank doesn’t need to say a word. The disappointment he feels about his nephew’s rejection of a legitimate future is equal to the blame he puts on himself for inspiring such a sordid career path.

There are conversations about “never forgetting where we came from.” There are scenes where Crowe’s character, Richie Roberts, comes to terms with the loss of custody of his son. But you get gunplay for your money, too. The badass action scenes with automatics and lethal sledgehammers that will sell the movie are just as satisfying. So is the inevitable confrontation between the two big men themselves. When Frank and Richie finally meet, you feel it in your gut.

Pay attention to the film subtler successes, namely the inclusion of news coverage about Vietnam, and its less subtle visual ones, like costume designer Janty Yates’s dedication to 1970s Harlem fashion: big hats, flashy sunglasses and fur coats.

The final redemption for certain characters and minor details that seem far-fetched might prevent the movie from entering the realm of gangster-film touchstones of the past. Yet there is brilliance in the contrast between the first and final scenes of Lucas, which serve as ingenious bookends for the film. Enter Ridley Scott, whose vision and experience is responsible for this tight, artful story. Scott has supplied American culture with another great tale.

The performances are great, Harris Savides’s cinematography reflects the look of the film’s period and the tone, and the locations are as descriptive as the dialogue. But a film deserving of such widespread marketing, with a bill of players and crew that put the butts in the seats, calls for more than just a simple checklist. “American Gangster” calls into question our principles. Like an epic period piece should, it presents much that can be pared down to a simple theme: the comparison of two people in opposite situations dealing with the same decisions. The two words of the tile itself invoke a relationship between the ideal and the gritty reality – one does not exist without the other.

Paul Tassi: 3.5 of 5 stars

“American Gangster” should be a masterpiece. There’s no way around it. It’s based on the story of the first black man who gained truly legendary status in the world of organized crime. It stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, two consummate actors, each playing a type of character they have perfected on their own tracks: Washington as the strong, charismatic leader, Crowe as the downtrodden hero with a heart of gold. All this is under the helm of their friend, director Ridley Scott, who can make classic movies like most people make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Why, then, is “American Gangster” merely good rather than the epic its creators clearly intended?

Ever since its announcement, the film has been heralded as the black “Scarface” or “Godfather.” If it had to be classified as one of these two, it’s probably the latter, since its violence and themes are subtler than, say, the roaring engine of a chainsaw echoing off ceramic bathroom walls.

But unlike either of those films, “American Gangster” isn’t really about a rise to power. Frank Lucas’s boss dies about 30 seconds into the film, and even though he’s only his bodyguard and driver, Lucas (Washington) is collecting bills and going to the Vietnamese jungle to buy cocaine in a matter of minutes.

The movie is instead about having power and keeping it. One of the film’s great moments is when Lucas berates his relative for wearing a flashy suit, telling him the flashiest are the ones who get caught. Later, he fails to follow his own advice, much to his potential downfall. The balance between extravagance and restraint is discussed often in the film, and that’s probably its most unique contribution to the genre.

Washington plays this role with ease, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before. He’s a maverick, but between his powerful performance as Malcolm X or his Oscar-winning turn as Alonzo in “Training Day,” there isn’t much new to see here. He executes every line perfectly, but there’s no new flavor.

On the other side of the law is Russell Crowe as detective Richie Roberts. What would seem like a flawed anti-hero is, upon closer inspection, neither flawed nor anti-anything, just a flat-out Boy Scout. Despite looking stoned most of the movie, Roberts never does any drugs, never steals any money and never does anything wrong – save for not having enough free time to spend with his kid. It seems Scott just needed Crowe to play Roberts as another name for the marquee, since the role doesn’t require much else other than speeches on “the right thing to do.”

The story is the strong point of the film. Lucas’s rise from his peak to his fall to his redemption is engrossing to watch, albeit a little slow at times. Roberts’s half of the story, on the other hand, is less entertaining, since watching him go to divorce court, take the bar exam and hide in a car taking pictures isn’t exactly Dirty Harry-type police work.

The climax involves a full-scale automatic weapons fight (although no one says “say ‘ello to my little friend”), and the ending reinforces how incredible it is that this is an actual true story. “Gangster” is definitely worthwhile, but what it’s not worth is all the hype surrounding it. It’s good but not amazing, entertaining but not enthralling and – I hate to say it – forgettable.

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