By Leah RozenPaul Chi and Melody Wells
Updated November 12, 2007 12:00 PM
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Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Ruby Dee, Josh Brolin R |

CRITIC’S CHOICE

CRIME

You don’t need an MBA degree to appreciate American Gangster. This entertaining true-life crime thriller vividly shows how, by applying capitalism’s basic principles, Frank Lucas (Washington) came to dominate the New York City heroin trade in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He sold a superior product—a purer grade of dope—for less money, making up in volume what he sacrificed in price. Oh, and he personally whacked his cheating rivals.

Gangster is built on such irony. Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) establishes that this shrewd businessman has all the qualities—drive, determination, devotion to family—one usually associates with a hero. Lucas loves his wife, escorts his mom (Dee) to church on Sundays and finds jobs for his five brothers in his fast-growing business. In contrast, the personal life of hot-tempered Richie Roberts (Crowe), the incorruptible cop who eventually nails Lucas, is a shambles.

Even with a running time of 2 1/2 hours, Gangster moves at a fast clip, helped by dynamic turns from Washington, all calm determination, and Crowe, all hair-trigger emotion. As their parallel stories unfold and their paths inevitably cross, the movie gains force and complexity as it becomes clear that, at their core, these two are not as fundamentally different as they may seem. The better man? Your call.