The difference between early Ridley Scott, like The Duellists and Alien and late-period Ridley Scott, like Black Rain and Hannibal, is the difference between "stylish" and "slick." In the former, the look of a film -- the photography, the art direction, the costuming -- is as much the subject of the film as whatever the story happens to be. In the latter, all the emphasis on surface things only underscores the fact that there is nothing going on at the heart of the films. American Gangster is a welcome return to the "stylish" Ridley Scott. Unlike Matchstick Men or Black Hawk Down, American Gangster feels like an impersonal work for the director, and in this case that is a very good thing. Scott allows his remarkably gifted collaborators -- cinematographer Harris Savides, editor Pietro Scalia, and screenwriter Steven Zaillian -- to do what they do best and simply uses his own skills to keep everything moving along in a solid, professional way.
Though they are kept apart for the vast majority of the film's 160-minute running time, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe carry their respective sections of the flick with movie-star ease. As larger-than-life criminal mastermind Frank Lucas, Washington gets to utilize his formidable charm while only once falling into the overacting that afflicts him on occasion when playing outright bad guys. As the ethically pure cop out to bring Frank down, Crowe offers his nearly patented brand of brooding physicality. There is nothing new about these characters, or in the film as a whole, but the solidly structured story draws parallels between the two men -- playing up the old "bad guy isn't so bad" and the "good guy isn't so good" themes that might seem incredibly tired in the hands of lesser actors and filmmakers. An end-of-film decision by Frank softens the film a great deal; this is, after all, Hollywood product, and it would be unacceptable to not like both the leads, but seeing as nothing that has come before indicates anyone was aiming for art, this twist can be forgiven. American Gangster is nothing more or less than product, sure to satisfy those who need a genre fix.