At this point, we know the gangster biopic forumla nearly as well as that of the musician biopic, and it's ensentially the same: clear-sighted guy rises to stardom by employing revolutionary skill, marries, negative side of success kicks in, he mistreats his wife and those he loves, his life unravels and results in either death or redemption.
We're aware of all this, and it's more or less what happens in Ridley Scott's American Gangster, but from the moment of intensity which opens the film to its rousing final shot, we're hooked. Directed by Scott with the usual flare, the story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), the real-life leader of organized crime in '70s Harlem, builds competently, if a little slowly, but doesn't start to crackle until its second act.
Lucas's story is balanced with that of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a struggling cop who eventually heads the Bureau of Narcotics, and as each is faced with his own questions of morality, we see the good and bad in both men. Each's paths are destined for one another, and when they finally do meet toward the close of the suspenseful third act, the two powerhouses playing off of one another is truly something to see.
Washington and Crowe employ their schticks (stern-but-charming and schlub-trying-to-do-right, respectively) to full capacity, but Gangster excels by going deeper than a "good bad guy/bad good guy" scenario. By virtue of the fact that it's set in Harlem and primarily an African American story, it strives to get at the root of the conditions which allow those on top to stay on top.
Not a big one, but in case you don't - or don't want to - know what happens to Frank Lucas, you may want to stop reading. Upon his arrest by Richie Roberts, Lucas helps Roberts take down three-quarters of New York's corrupt drug enforcement officers, and Lucas's sentence is drastically reduced. This is a moral victory of sorts, though in the closing scene, in which Lucas emerges from prison and steps out into a different world - specifically, '90s Harlem - and Public Enemy leads us into the credits, we see that, yes, some things have changed, but, perhaps, some things never will.