(CNN) -- The gangster is an outsider. The gangster takes all that "Land of Opportunity" stuff and shoves it in his pocket.
Denzel Washington plays a ruthless drug lord in "American Gangster."
"The gangster is the 'no' to the great American 'yes' which is stamped so big over our official culture," wrote the critic Robert Warshow.
But, as we know, gangster movies never end happily. Right?
Set in the late 1960s and early '70s, Ridley Scott's star-driven "American Gangster" positions Harlem's notorious drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) as an entrepreneurial self-starter in the black economy. A country boy from the South, he studies status and power at the elbow of Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), an old-school inner-city crime lord who hands out turkeys on Thanksgiving.
In the film's brisk, info-loaded first act, we see how this watchful, attentive henchman puts his learning into effect to step into his boss' shoes. When he needs to underline the new order, he does so promptly and with the minimum of fuss: He shoots his loudest rival in the head right out in the middle of the street.
Then he goes back and finishes his lunch.
Even so, it's not the ruthlessness that distinguishes Lucas from every other Scarface on the block. It's his business smarts. Boys are coming back from Vietnam high on the local smack. Frank is first to realize the business potential this untapped supply represents. By eliminating the middleman, he's able to undercut the competition by 200 percent, and with a superior product. In any other field, he'd be gracing the cover of Forbes. In the drug business, it's safer to stay under the radar.
While Frank Lucas is living the American Dream -- he marries a beauty queen and brings his momma (Ruby Dee) and his brothers over to share his suburban mansion -- Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is studying law. His wife wants nothing more to do with him, and he's a pariah on the force after handing in a million dollars in unmarked bills. Who could trust a guy like that? Invited to set up a special drug unit with men of his own choosing, Roberts has to engage in some social anthropology of his own. Watch Washington and Crowe talk about "Gangster" »
A heavyweight by design, "American Gangster" clocks in at 2 ˝ hours and packs a solid wallop. Whether it can live up to sky-high expectations is another matter. Even Ridley Scott has found himself name-checking "The Godfather" and "The French Connection"; they're both pertinent comparisons up to a point, but suggestive of fireworks that don't quite ignite here.
I was reminded more of zealous New York thrillers by Sidney Lumet -- films like "Prince of the City" and "Serpico" -- not just because Richie Roberts might have been the model for those straight-arrow, squeaky-wheel cops, but because Steven Zaillian's screenplay doggedly puts the focus on process and ethics, not action and adrenaline. (Josh Brolin, as a venally corrupt NYPD detective, and Armand Assante as a mafia don could easily be Lumet characters: They're larger than life but aggressively true to it.)
To an extent, long-form TV series like "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" have raised the bar by exploring this kind of material in the depth a mere movie can only hint at, and "American Gangster" bites off more than it chews. But a movie has its own dynamic; there's something irresistible about the way Zaillian's parallel narratives gradually converge, the black-and-white mirror images of the dedicated cop and the consummate operator drawing ever nearer.
Russell Crowe brings his own considerable scowling integrity to Roberts, but in a gangster movie, it's the bad guy you come to see -- and here Denzel kills.
Whether it's fastidiously demonstrating the correct way to remove bloodstains from an alpaca rug ("Don't rub. Blot") or patiently explaining the concept of trademark infringement to a rival dealer (Cuba Gooding Jr. as flamboyant Nicky Barnes), every move he makes speaks to an essentially African-American pride and passion, the contained fury of an invisible man striving to get out from under.
The movie may triumph on points, but Washington scores a knockout.