Harlem in the early 1970s is the setting for Scott’s ambitious depiction of the rise and fall of Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington)–a movie which, like The Godfather, enlarges well beyond its genre parameters to become a deeply absorbing panorama of Vietnam- and Watergate-era America. As Lucas rises to gangland prominence by importing cheaper, more powerful heroin directly from Thailand and underselling the competition, do-gooder NYPD detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is placed in charge of a task force assigned to ferret Lucas out and take him down. But in a city where the cops can run as dirty as the mobsters they seek, Lucas and Roberts find themselves forging an unlikely alliance against more sinister forces of corruption. Washington and Crowe (in his third Scott collaboration) are typically electrifying, with ace support from Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor and the legendary Ruby Dee in an Oscar-nominated performance as Lucas’ tough-love mother.
“It is a tribute to the complexity and drama of Zaillian's character-driven script and to Scott's commanding grasp of large-scale visuals and sweeping storytelling that the truth is puny and uninvolving compared with the bravura moviemaking webs these men can weave…What American Gangster is doing is re-creating myths, and it's good to see that the movies haven't lost their touch where that kind of work is concerned.”
—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“The pace of the movie is rapid, almost hectic, the touch glancing. Until the confrontation between Frank and Richie at the end, nothing stays on the screen for long, although Scott, working in the street, or in clubs and at parties, packs as much as he can into the corners of shots, and shapes even the most casual scenes decisively. American Gangster has been made with great panache and drive.”
—David Denby, The New Yorker