Denzel Washington is an ‘American Gangster’ on Max

The American Gangster (2007) of Ridley Scott’s sprawling crime drama is Frank Lucas, the real-life Harlem crime boss who transformed the heroin trade in the seventies. Denzel Washington plays Frank in this rise-and-fall drama and Russell Crowe is New York Detective Richie Roberts, whose anti-drug task force to shut down his operation.

It all begins in the 1970s as Frank masterminds a scheme to ship heroin directly from Southeast Asia. In the chaos of the Vietnam War, American Air Force pilots become his own private couriers. Washington plays Frank as a cagey, careful businessman, a drug kingpin as corporate CEO building his empire with quiet ruthlessness. Where his rivals embrace flash and flamboyant style to show off their power, Frank is all dignity and charm… until he needs to make an example of someone. Those moments of violence seem put in there just to remind us that he’s a gangster.  

Crowe’s Richie is his opposite, a working class narcotics officer trying to do honest work in a corrupt department. He’s all grim obsession and street smarts, a cop to the core who neglects everything else in his life—including his family—for his job.

Scott evokes the crime cinema of the seventies with his mix of gritty police thriller and sprawling crime epic (with a sprinkling of blaxploitation excess). He presents a grimier, more beat-up New York filled with abandoned buildings and garbage-strewn streets, and cinematographer Harris Savides, famous for his work with Gus Van Sant, drains the color and brightness to evoke the look of seventies cinema. But its roots are equally in the rise-and-fall gangster thrillers of the eighties and nineties.

The epic treatment is well crafted but lacks the fascinating personalities of the modern crime classics his film evokes. And it ends with a surprisingly optimistic turn.

Ruby Dee earned an Oscar nomination for playing Lucas’ mother, and Josh Brolin, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Chiwetel Ejiofor, Armand Assante, and Carla Gugino co-star. Steven Zaillian scripts, adapting the “New York” magazine article “The Return of Superfly.” It also earned and Oscar nomination for art direction.

Rated R

Streams for a limited time on Max

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video (original release and extended edition), iTunes, GooglePlay, Fandango, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
American Gangster [Blu-ray]
American Gangster [4K UHD+Blu-ray]
American Gangster [DVD]

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The special edition Blu-ray and DVD editions present both the original theatrical version (with commentary by Scott and writer Steven Zaillian) and an unrated extended version with 18 minutes of additional footage, as well as the documentaries, deleted scenes and additional featurettes.

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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