'Gangster': The Man, the Myth

Friday, November 2, 2007

In "American Gangster," time doesn't fly, it explodes.

The thing is 2 1/2 hours long; it feels like 40 minutes.

Whether it's the next great American crime movie or simply this year's professional stunner will be determined over time; for now, it's enough to say that the story of the rise and fall of an African American drug kingpin is relentlessly told by the Englishman Ridley ("Gladiator," "Black Hawk Down") Scott; it just keeps coming.

The movie stars Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a beneath-the-radar Harlem heroin impresario of the 1970s who put together an astonishing organization before anyone noticed, and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the Jersey detective who tracked him, then took him down. It has the aspirations of an epic of crime and punishment, a superb feel for time and milieu, and an almost subliminal feel for myth.

Scott, working from a brilliant script by Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List," among many other A-list projects), plays the stories of Lucas and Roberts off each other so adroitly that we don't notice that the two antagonists, though defined as such by the parallel cutting and equal screen time as well as the charisma of the stars, aren't even aware of each other until the movie's second half and never eyeball each other until the last 20 minutes.

Washington is brilliant. He seems to have a secret mechanism by which he turns his face off; it goes from a vibrant, expressive projection of humanity and empathy to a stone-killer executioner's mask in so fast a flash, it's scary. Yet, like many movies before it, the film also makes you love Frank. That's the key -- the charisma of the man who triumphs over the system -- and so identified with this theme is "American Gangster" that its other hero, Richie, is also defined as an outsider. The movie seems to be saying: When the inside is so corrupt, you must turn to outsiders.

-- Stephen Hunter

American Gangster R, 151 minutes Contains violence and drug use. Area theaters. American Gangster R, 151 minutes Contains violence and drug use. Area theaters.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company