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American Gangster


Stars: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Carla Gugino, RZA, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr, Armand Assante, Joe Morton, Jon Polito, Idris Elba

Director: Ridley Scott

Where will your sympathies lie in this solid, if overlong period crime thriller about a black gangster, Frank Lucas (Washington), who seizes his big opportunity when the underworld boss he served as driver and bodyguard suddenly dies?

You can understand Washington's desire for a range of roles - after all, he won an Oscar as a corrupt cop in Training Day - and his genial manner does make the character's outbursts of violence all the more jarring. His adversary is Richie Roberts (Crowe), a sex-crazy but achingly honest cop whose handover of a million stolen dollars gets him ostracised by his fellow officers.

Somebody wants him, though and, in 1970, he's asked to head up the Essex County Narcotics Squad, whose members, like himself, look more like drug buyers and distributors than the real thing.

Meanwhile, Lucas executes his great coup - the purchase of massive consignments of 100 per cent pure heroin from army sources in Vietnam, which he imports to the States, in military planes bringing back the US dead, and sells on the streets at half the price of his competitors' watered-down dope. Frank walks around in quietly smart suits, takes a beauty queen wife (Lymari Nadal), and brings in his five brothers from North Carolina to run the 'business' in various cities.

A man of immense underlying violence beneath the surface charm, Frank doesn't hesitate to execute those in his way, or administer vicious beatings when a minion (or brother) lets him down. But when his wife buys him an expensive fur coat and hat, he catches Roberts' eye and, from then on, the two men are locked on a collision course.

This is good stuff but, despite Washington's charismatic performance, it doesn't quite have the stature of The Godfather. Movie buffs may recognise the actress playing Lucas' mother as Ruby Dee, one of the pioneering black actresses in the slowly-changing Hollywood of the 1950s.

David Quinlan

USA 2007. UK Distributor: Universal. Technicolor.
157 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 18.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 3, Swearing 2.

Review date: 12 Nov 2007