American Gangster

Year: 2007
Production Co: Scott Free/Relativity Media/Imagine Entertainment
Studio: Universal
Director: Ridley Scott
Producer: Brian Grazer/Ridley Scott
Writer: Steve Zaillian
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, RZA, Carla Gugino
Who can forget one of the most anticipated scenes in movie history, two of acting's most titanic talents finally sharing the screen and generating enough electricity between them to power the entire rest of the movie?

Even though they were just sitting at a table talking like two regular guys, Al Pacino as Vincent Hanna and Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley testing each others boundaries in the coffee shop scene of 1995's Heat felt like an informal meeting between God and Satan for the souls of all mankind.

Ridley Scott makes you feel almost the same way by the time Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) finally meet in his crime epic American Gangster.

Whether you consider Crowe and Washington in Pacino and De Niro's class (and both men have outshone the latter pair when it comes to choice of roles lately), Scott does such a thrilling job of building Steve Zaillian's script up to the final meeting between the two you're practically bursting for it.

And once again, although it's two guys talking across a table, the tension in the direction, masterful dialogue in the script and talents of these two actors make it a filmmaking masterclass.

It's the story of the rise of Harlem crime lord Frank Lucas (Washington), who took over the heroin trafficking business after his boss' death and used an iron fist to reach new heights selling smack to poor urban blacks. At the same time we watch the seemingly last honest detective on the force, Richie Roberts (Crowe), doggedly on the trail of the heroin hierarchy with his small and dedicated band of narcs.

Both mens' stories are told in parallel in a classic 'of course crime pays, idiot' tale when Lucas attains unheard of riches and power by going straight to the source, buying his heroin from a rogue Thai general and sending it back to America any way he can (including in the coffins of dead soldiers).

And the stories are fascinating enough, but what Scott does to it is something else. Even though he uses his director brother Tony's long-time leading man in Washington, he doesn't borrow his style as some have suggested, instead making American Gangster feel a lot like Scorsese's best work. For a Brit, he shows an innate and intimate knowledge of the landscape, characters and speech of a seedy 1970s New York. It's something of a love letter to the characters like Scorsese would make, Scott letting everything from music to still images give the movie a wonderful sense of pace and zing.

His talent is joined by Washington and Crowe at their best. As always Crowe isn't afraid to reach beyond his (considerable) abilities and you see him stumble occasionally for doing so, but Washington is a joy to watch, Frank Lucas one of the most interesting villains of recent times. We almost feel he's the good guy as he shows his beautiful wife a good time, buys a massive house for his sainted mother and lectures everyone around him about the virtues of honesty and family.

Then we see him turn his hair-trigger temper on anyone, even his own brother, we see his young nephew give up on a promising baseball career to be like him, a decision that will only get him killed or jailed. We see junkies dead in their squalid projects apartments with needles hanging out of their arms.

It's the sort of moral conundrum many films try for and few reach, but something about Washington sells it like nobody else could. And with a crackling script and the vision of one of the best directors working today, American Gangster might be one of the best movies of the last year.

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