But it lacks momentum, and thus the propulsion required to rocket it into the movie mythosphere. Its choppy editing hurts. An orchestral musical score rather than its jukebox soundtrack might have helped unify its ping-pong narrative. This is not a mob opera, it's a pop procedural.
Inspired by "The Return of Superfly," Mark Jacobson's incredible-but-true magazine profile of the '70s Harlem kingpin, Gangster opposes two types: Lucas, outlaw and devoted family man, versus Roberts, lawman and unfaithful husband.
Put them in the same room - which doesn't happen until the film's climax - and they are brothers under the holster. Half moral, half immoral, all monomaniac.
Scott's film opens with a chilling glimpse of the stone-faced Lucas incinerating a rival thug, then pumping him with bullets - the hit-man equivalent of wearing both belt and suspenders.
American Gangster details how Lucas went from henchman to overlord of the Harlem underworld, less good at showing what drove him. The real-life Lucas boasted to Jacobson that he had the business brain for Wall Street, but couldn't have gotten hired as a janitor there.
Like self-made men before and since, Lucas applied his entrepreneurial skills to the supply-and-demand of the street. He buys heroin direct from the poppy fields of Asia, controls the means of transport, packaging and distribution. He cut out the middleman, boosted his profits, and - in the most daring part of the scheme - smuggled in the contraband on U.S. military jets.
As Lucas, Washington streams like a torpedo splintering the hull of society. When he says "My man!", it's an expletive. Both he and Ruby Dee, as his mother, give Oscar-caliber performances.
Like most mob films, Gangster is a study in extreme capitalism, its collateral benefits and damage. In a Thanksgiving montage, it shows that while Lucas' drug empire affords him the Norman Rockwell American dream, it comes at the cost of hungry kids crying as their parents overdose.
What Lucas does is illegal and immoral. But he's not pretending to serve the public, like Det. Trupo (Josh Brolin, effective in a Simon Legree mustache), the on-the-take cop who in the screenplay's moral relativism is a bigger villain than Lucas.
In the labored symmetry of Steven Zaillian's screenplay, Lucas' rise and fall is balanced by Roberts' fall and rise. This may respect the biographical facts, but feels overdetermined. If Lucas makes a million on the street, bet that Roberts is going to find a million - of Trupo's shakedown money - and will return it like the Boy Scout he is. If Lucas clenches his fists to flex his power, bet that Roberts will have jitterfingers to signify how nervous he is.
This symmetry does have a payoff when, at last, Lucas and Roberts face off. Great actors, like great athletes, elevate each other's games. It's thrilling to watch these guys, frequent Oscar competitors, go at each other. Can Washington's steel withstand Crowe's corrosiveness? Is the fist mightier than the jitterfingers? Does the Hurricane blow away Cinderella Man? It's a draw.
Though by the end the two actors are evenly matched, this is Washington's film. With its quicksilver mood shifts Washington's performance makes him an Oscar front-runner. (Crowe's likely citation will be for 3:10 to Yuma.) I know that if Washington wins I'll be annoyed all over again that his lead-actor statuettes are for his unrepentant figures in Training Day and Gangster rather than the redemptive figures of Malcolm X and Hurricane.
American Gangster *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Ridley Scott. With Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Yul Vazquez, Armand Assante and Ted Levine. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 37 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, drugs, profanity, sex, nudity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.