The movie follows the parallel stories of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Lucas starts out as a quiet, two-bit character, a driver for a black New York mobster. When his boss dies of a heart attack, Lucas gradually fills the power vacuum and takes over his former boss' empire. He quickly figures out a way to smuggle high-grade heroin from Viet Nam into the United States and floods the streets of Harlem with a product both better & cheaper than his competitors, becoming rich & powerful in the process. Roberts is an honest cop who is ostracized by his colleagues for turning in a fortune in untraceable cash that he & his partner find at a crime scene. He is eventually put in charge of a task force charged with taking down Lucas.
Although Washington & Crowe don't appear together in a scene until about 15 minutes from the end of the movie, watching them on screen is like watching two chess grand masters. The interrogation scene near the end of the movie is like a master class in acting - these two guys could eat actors like Tom Cruise for breakfast. Every supporting actor in the film plays their role to perfection.
The real star is the New York City of the pre-Giuliani 1970s, back when it was a truly decayed and frightening place. I remember visiting the city in 1978 when I was a teenager & being shocked by the experience - when I returned in 2001 I hardly recognized it. Director Ridley Scott has beautifully captured the atmosphere of decay & anarchy that pervaded the city then. The sets, the props, the hair-styles & clothing, the music & TV shows - everthing is finely tuned to set the mood of the time. Every scene seems to be bathed in a sickly fluorescent light that simultaneously reminds you of one of those 70s crime dramas like Shaft and an Encyclopoedia Britannica film like we used to watch in high school science class.
My favourite aspect of the film was the way Scott toyed with our sense of morality. There is little that is clearly right or wrong in this world - only various degrees of moral ambiguity. Roberts, the last honest cop in New York, is a cheating husband and a failure as a father. Lucas, the man who runs a criminal operation that brings untold misery to the streets of Harlem, is a devoted husband and takes his mother to church every Sunday. In a perverted version of the American Dream, Lucas exploits the principles of free market capitalism to establish his criminal empire. The heroin epidemic that is ravaging the black neighbourhoods of New York is fueled by Lucas, the most powerful black man in the city. The NYPD drug squad responsible for stopping the carnage is full of corrupt cops who are in on the operation. At the end, when Lucas & Roberts eventually meet, they develop a grudging admiration for each other that borders on friendship.
Hollywood industry types are constantly griping about the decline of the industry & the fact that audiences don't go to theatres much anymore. Well, there's a reason for that - they've been making crappy movies. I'm not sure how American Gangster made it through the meat-grinder, but it sure is one great movie - like they used to make.