Directed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster is a big, blue-toned bruiser of a crime epic, telling the true story of 1970's Harlem crime lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the Jersey cop who brought him down. Scott's working with rich, real material here, as screenwriter Stephen Zaillian adapts Mark Jacobson's 2000 New York Magazine piece "The Return of Superfly." The interesting thing is how Scott's epic-sized story doesn't stumble on the facts but, rather, on fragments of fiction -- the echo of other movies in American Gangster grows and grows until it drowns out what Scott's trying to say. That doesn't mean that Scott's film isn't well made or compelling, but the constant stream of references and nods to other movies makes the film look a little shabby, clad in stolen grandeur like a giant's robes upon a dwarfish thief.
American Gangster opens strong, as Denzel Washington's Frank Lucas pours gas on another man, sets it alight and then pumps a couple of shots into the flaming victim as rough mercy. The message to anyone expecting the noble, beloved Denzel Washington of the past is clear: No more Mr. Nice Guy. Frank is the driver for Bumpy Jones (Clarence Williams III), the benevolent gangster-lord of Harlem. But Bumpy, incensed by a discount department store, mutters a final judgment before dying: "This is what's wrong with America -- it's gotten so big you can't find your way ... What right do they have cutting out the suppliers, pushing all the middlemen out, buying direct from the manufacturer?" Bumpy's not long in the ground before Frank seizes on his dying mentor's words and spins them to his own benefit -- he's going to cut out the middleman, go around the Mob-controlled drug interests that regulate the flow of heroin into New York, purchase direct from the Southeast Asian dope kings, flood the streets with pure, cheap drugs.