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American Gangster

David Lee/Universal Pictures

Review in a Hurry:  The beautiful/violent American Gangster has plenty of talent behind the camera, in director Ridley Scott, but the film's key player is Denzel Washington It's a performance to behold, as he's front and center in this nearly three-hour, based-on-reality story of a big-time '70s Harlem heavy who pioneered heroin trafficking.

The Bigger Picture:  Frank Lucas (Washington) started his thug life as a bodyguard for Harlem's oldest mobster, but deftly surpassed him in power and influence. He dodged and parried with the long arm of the crooked cops, and the Italian mob, to stand high as one of the biggest heroin dealers during the 1970s. What was his secret? Well, we don't want to spoil the movie's fun—but Lucas succeeded by not being flashy and buying directly from the manufacturer.

He may be Super Fly on the inside, but he was still all business. No fancy duds, not a hint of big pimpin'. Washington plays Lucas as the smartest man in the room, and it's a blast to behold, in scene after scene, especially as he's flanked by a strong ensemble of Hollywood's best character actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine and Ruby Dee.

One his trail is dogged detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), and his slow progress is also the film's main weakness. Sure, Crowe turns in another solid performance, but his role consists mostly of waiting around, hoping he gets a lucky break to catch the new king of New York.

The last 40 minutes are a powder keg of violence, but don't confuse this for an action flick. Like any great crime drama, the real tension is behind the hail of bullets, wrapped up in the mutual admiration (and antagonism) that Lucas and Roberts have for each other.

The 180–a Second Opinion:  Frank Lucas believes fiercely in not standing out, so this is one badass gangster who won't come anywhere near Scarface as a pop-culture icon. Sorry, Denzel.