MOVIE REVIEW- Blue magic: Crowe, Washington take us back

Despite a large number of African Americans in our prisons, most of them have grown up without role models for major crime. Even in ‘70s blaxploitation films like Black Caesar and The Black Godfather, the title characters were content to control small-time drug dealing, gambling, and prostitution in their neighborhoods. Not until New Jack City (1991) did a black man build an empire worth emulating.

"Based on a true story," American Gangster shows how Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) used a real-life mentor to break all the rules in the late ‘60s. For 15 years Frank was driver, bodyguard, and collector for Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III as the man Lawrence Fishburne played in Hoodlum, which might be seen as a prequel), but he kept his eyes and ears open. When Bumpy, known as "the Robin Hood of Harlem," dies in 1968, Frank goes into action.

Rather than get involved in a deadly fight for succession to replace Bumpy, Frank arranges to get heroin shipped directly from Vietnam and sells it on the street, twice the quality for half the price. He even brands his product, calling it "Blue Magic." In one of the movie's funniest scenes he accuses another gangster (Cuba Gooding Jr.) of "copyright infringement" for cutting his heroin and selling it under the same name.

Frank comes from a large family in Greensboro, North Carolina, and moves them all to New York– five brothers, several cousins, and his mother (Ruby Dee)– to conduct business for him. This not only gives him people he can trust, but allows him to rise above the day-to-day activity, rarely getting his hands dirty. So that he's not too much of a hero, we also see him kill a couple of men in cold blood and see people addicted to his product dying horrible deaths.

The parallel story is of Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who could throw down with Frank Serpico in a competition for New York's most honest cop. In an early scene, he and his partner find nearly a million dollars in drug money in a car trunk, and Richie insists on turning in every penny. With other cops, especially Det. Trupo (Josh Brolin), so connected to the drug dealers it's hard to tell who's running the operation, Richie's practically the only one who actually wants to arrest someone. Through it all he manages to maintain a longstanding friendship with a gangster from the old neighborhood, with both of them careful not to overstep their boundaries.

When President Nixon stars a war on drugs to distract from the war in Vietnam, Richie, who's been going to law school at night, is named to head a narcotics squad that's "going after major suppliers and distributors." Frank stays beneath his radar for a long time, and even when Richie learns all about him, he still assumes the black man must be working for the Mafia or other white crimelords.

No great stretch is required of either star to embody their characters, men who operate outside the standard code of their chosen professions, "upsetting the natural order of things." It seems odd that Richie (who was initially to be played by Benicio Del Toro) is Jewish, which is only acknowledged by his wearing a Star of David and receiving one ethnic slur.

Director Ridley Scott, working from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian, gives us an epic recreation of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s period so perfect we take it for granted after a few minutes. There are moments, especially Bumpy's opening speech before he dies, where the contemporary parallels seem forced, but that's a minor concern.

What will upset some viewers is that, as in Michael Mann's Heat, the Oscar-winning stars have almost no screen time together. Washington and Crowe hardly share the screen more than Pacino and De Niro did. While they're both at the same event, the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight, at the 85-minute mark, nearly another hour passes before they come face to face. Once they do, American Gangster is a different, even better film– but it's almost over.

There could certainly have been some tightening in the lengthy lead-up to the stars' confrontation, because the movie drags by the end of the second hour, but most of what's there is good, and the final portion is worth waiting for.