American Gangster

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Formula underworld drama poured into an epic template. Like Jiffy-brand waffle batter spread over an iron the size of a billiard table. "Based on a true story," it traces, in separate intertwined storylines, the converging upward paths of criminal and cop: the former (Denzel Washington) starting out as the servile driver and bodyguard for the legendary Bumpy Johnson, a big fish in the small pond of Harlem into the late Sixties, then expanding the pond, upon his boss's death, into an ocean; and the latter (Russell Crowe) working his way up as an undercover narc in New Jersey, studying for the bar in his spare time. Their eventual meeting comes, and drags on, as something of an anticlimax, after an excitingly staged drug raid from which the ganglord is lucky to be absent. The opposing paths up to that point are smoothly graded and well greased; and director Ridley Scott, the epitome of slick (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and so on), moves things along at a tolerable pace, although there's the distinct impression that even if he knew any shortcuts, he wouldn't take them. His goal is epic, and he would gladly drag his feet to get there. At two and a half hours plus, he indeed does get there. Washington, to pay him a backhanded compliment, is never quite as credible as a through-and-through baddie, even though that seems to be the way to the Oscar (i.e., Training Day). Crowe on the other hand is a perfectly credible crusader, overcoming no greater obstacles on the road to respectability than his buoyant white sneakers and his unflattering, inexpensive period haircut, framing his face with folded wings. With Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, and Ruby Dee. (2007) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated R | 2 hours, 40 minutes
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