American Gangster is a very good, very effective, and somewhat unsettling gangster film that will almost certainly have it's place at the 2008 Oscars. It is the first mainstream gangster film to return to original genre format set up in the 30s, the rise and fall of a gangster.
American Gangster is two stories. First it is the story of Frank Lucas' rise to power as a heroin dealer in the 1970s. This is where the film spends most of it's time; exploring both the business side, and the personal side. The second story is of Richie Roberts, Russell Crowe, a narcotics detective attempting to take down a drug empire in a world of dirty cops.
Both stories are equally captivating and if there is one fault of the movie it is that the two stories feel awkwardly separate at first, and that's because they are. I said earlier that the tension is set at a slow boil. Throughout the film there are seemingly random shots of drug use used to establish setting, and Ridley Scott cleverly sneaks in Vietnam coverage on the television that in many cases parallels the story.
This simmering tension is incredibly effective, making the sociopathic tendencies of Frank Lucas really jump off the screen. The violence is often abrupt, gritty, and once the climax of the film is reached, we're given one of the better, most realistic shoot outs I've seen in a while.
The acting in American Gangster is top notch, Denzel delivers his lines with an unsettling calm that really makes the character feel dangerous. Russell Crowe makes the cop feel endearing and yet human, and keeps you rooting for him. In the end, American Gangster is a really really good gangster film and on top of that, just a great movie in general. Does it rank up with the crime classics like the Godfather and Goodfellas, no, but it's darn close. Ridley Scott takes all the right elements and makes them fit into one incredibly entertaining film.