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Harlem heat
Denzel Washington is a slick 1970s heroin king whose reign is threatened by an honest cop played by Russell Crowe

"Whacha gonna do, Frank? Shoot me in front of everyone?" That's what a cocky, arrogant Harlem racketeer asks when Frank Lucas interrupts breakfast to put a gun to the head of the would-be protection czar on a crowded street.

Bad question.

As the defense attorneys say, never ask a question you don't already know the answer to. So tight was the very real Frank Lucas' reputation in Harlem in the early '70s that, as this film has it, he could do just that and get away with it. As "American Gangster" tells Lucas' story, he owned the legendary Harlem night spot Small's Paradise, among other places. And he distributed "Blue Magic" -- double-strength heroin at half the price of the competition's watered-down product.

He was the mob king of Harlem. The Cosa Nostra? As Frank puts it in one scene, they "work for me." And, sure enough, when Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier, Frank Lucas had better ringside seats.

And every Sunday, as streets and tenements were littered with the bodies of his "customers" -- those dead and those who might as well have been -- Frank faithfully attended church with his wife and mother.

"American Gangster" has been on the movie radar all year as the potential Big One -- quite possibly the film of the year. To peak the hype cycle, NBC coughed up Matt Lauer for an hour of prime time to do interviews. On the cover of Entertainment Weekly that just arrived in my mail are the faces of its two stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.

In a bit of media comedy conveying how screwed up things sometimes get in mainstream hype storms, Crowe's face in my copy is twice as big as Washington's.

And now a brief word from reality. It's Denzel Washington's movie. Crowe just lives in it -- very comfortably and well, to be sure, but that's all.

Denzel gets top billing. He's the one who's been attached to it from Day One. And he's the one with a lock on the opening weekend box office. He's the guy who can -- and routinely does -- "open a movie," as the movie honchos like to put it, i.e., a guy whose mere presence on a marquee or in an ad sells tickets by the ton. Remember that Crowe's inability to do that as expected in a pretty good movie -- "Cinderella Man" -- helped unnerve the fellow so much that he threw a phone at a desk clerk in a chi-chi Manhattan hotel.

"American Gangster" is very good. I think it's the best thing director Ridley Scott has done in more than a decade, but then I never went over the moon for "Gladiator" or "Black Hawk Down" the way adoring Ridley-ites did. So great has Ridley Scott been in his filmmaking life from the beginning (see "Alien," "Blade Runner" and "Thelma and Louise") far too many people assume he couldn't possibly bore you as much as he does in, say, "Kingdom of Heaven."

To those who seem to believe that Ridley Scott can do no wrong, I could create without half trying a Ridley Scott film festival so tedious it would leave the audience on life support.

Not this time. This may be his grubbiest-looking and most foursquare film. But it's got two genuine movie stars (who are ALSO actors) doing the kind of work they're awfully good at. They're only together briefly at the end, but it's enough.

Washington plays Lucas, the heroin kingpin who started as the driver for Harlem mob lord Bumpy Johnson and ascended quickly when he figured out how to import 100% pure heroin from Vietnam and make his own product. He's a quiet, well-mannered man, always nattily dressed and good to his wife and mother.

Crowe plays Richie Roberts, an honest cop but a philandering slob and crummy father. He's so honest, he'll turn in $987,000 in unmarked bills he found in the trunk of a car -- so honest that he thinks he can still hang out with childhood friends who've grown up to be wealthy, high-level mobsters.

Richie's twitchy but with the heart of a predator. Frank is all glacial calm and street elegance until the moments he explodes. And when he does, he's the last man on earth you want to share a room with.

Frank's demise begins when he breaks one of his own rules -- "the loudest man in the room is the weakest man in the room" -- and attracts far too much attention to himself wearing a chinchilla coat and hat at the Ali-Frazier fight. After that, Richie and his team of investigators are suddenly aware of him.

Frank offers Denzel Washington nothing new to do. We've seen him do this before -- be the calm before the storm AND the storm. Nor does Richie give us a Russell Crowe we haven't seen before. Oscar nominations for these gigs would be category filler, or charity or both.

The movie gives us their parallel stories -- gangster and cop. It's a solid '30s mobster movie for the era after Brian DePalma's "Scarface" remake. But the movies it reminded me of the most were those magnificent and increasingly revered Sidney Lumet movies of the '70s -- "Serpico," "Prince of the City," "Dog Day Afternoon," big novelesque movies about corrupt cops up to their hips in the garbage of the streets and the ranker garbage of their own souls.

If you gave everyone in a Lumet movie a bath and a Valium, it might look like "American Gangster" (the old master is still at it at 83. His first-rate new movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke is called "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and opens here in two weeks.)

"American Gangster" is a 157-minute movie based on a 2000 New York magazine piece by journalist Mark Jacobson that covers only 32 pages in the book of the same name. It's about Frank and his "country boys dope ring," his gang of relatives from North Carolina who played a "significant role in the destruction of the social fabric of his time."

And that's where Ridley Scott is no Sidney Lumet. He'll never make a movie you watch as if you were touching an exposed live wire. Nor will he ever paint on as big a canvas as Coppola or Scorsese, however long a Scott film is.

"American Gangster" is Ridley Scott as Spike Lee and he's pretty nifty at it.

"Great" is not going to be a word in many people's vocabulary when they talk about "American Gangster." But "good" will be well-nigh universal.

As you'd expect, the cast and director attracted an ace bunch of supporting actors in this movie -- Cuba Gooding Jr., Joe Morton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, Nza, Common and, as Frank Lucas' mother, that majestic scene-stealer Ruby Dee, who could fuss and natter a scene away from any divinity you put on screen with her.

We Americans have been going to see movies like "American Gangster" in movie theaters for 70 years. Back then, they were in double-features. This one is the length of a '30's double-feature.

It's satisfying in the same way. In the great smorgasbord that is your local megaplex, here is the consummate meat loaf.



>Movie Review

American Gangster

Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jr., Joe Morton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ruby Dee in Ridley Scott's epic about the law's pursuit of Frank Lucas, the heroin king of Harlem in the '70's. Rated R for violence, language and nudity, opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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