The great director Ridley Scott has three masterpieces behind his belt: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. He can now add a fourth to that list: American Gangster.
Besides another great performance by Denzel Washington, not to mention the incredible supporting actors he has to work with like Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Arman Assante, and Cuba Gooding Jr., the film is a wholly original gangster picture. Denzel's performance is not to be understated however. His fans will get everything they watch the actor for; the smooth talk, the mannerisms, the bad ass stare, the yelling, and the cool demeanour. But like his best roles, he turns Frank Lucas into a fully realized character, a flawed but wholly sympathetic one.
The story focuses on how Frank Lucas was able to make more money than the Mafia through good business decisions. This film could almost be taught in economics classes, except for the fact that Lucas' product is heroine. Image, and an honest living giving back to the community were what helped Lucas get ahead, stay ahead for as long as he did, and never get backstabbed.
The film smartly contrasts his life with Richie Roberts (Crowe), who may stand for what's right, but doesn't impact his community the way Lucas does. Lucas isn't Scarface, nor is he Michael Corleone. He went a diferent way, which makes his story just as important as the others.
Ridley's production team successfully and accurately re-creates a gritty, realistic view of Harlem in the 1970s. They also don't shy away from showing what Lucas' product is doing to addicts. There's no denying that Frank Lucas does bad things. But given the world he grew up in, he did what he could to survive, and survive he did.
Note: I prefer the theatrical version to the unrated cut. I believe that Ridley made the edits for the theatrical cut for a reason and the additions interrupt the pacing and don't add any more depth to the already perfect narrative.