Since "The Godfather" of 1972, we just have varying degrees of badness within the mob hierarchy. Mob bosses Vito Corleone and Tony Soprano are Robin Hood-Horatio Alger types battling the real vile villains.
Decades ago, we had the baddie James Cagney character up against clean, righteous religious and/or law enforcement heroes (Pat O'Brien, Edmond O'Brien). And the good guys won ("Angels With Dirty Faces," "White Heat").
Now, thanks to Director Ridley Scott and a true story, "American Gangster" has an actual good guy. He is honest-cop-turned-honest-lawyer, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who brings down the infamous Harlem/international drug dealer, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington).
Lucas' operation is so despicable that he ships pure heroin in body bags of slain U.S. servicemen on tour in the Vietnam War. But as bad as Lucas is, it is the corrupt cops and military men who are the real evil ones.
Washington and Crowe only get to go at each other in one scene during the one hour and 27 minutes of movie time. Though the scene is powerful and effective, you wish for more for your 10 bucks. Still, the two-stories-in-one showing Lucas' and Roberts' parallel worlds slowly coming to a collision is engrossing, exciting and enlightening. As emphasized endlessly, Roberts appears to be the only honest cop in a very big rotting barrel. And the "baddest" of the bunch is Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), the villain's villain.
Washington's performance is not as mean-spirited as his Oscar-winning one in "Training Day," although he does torch and shoot a victim in "Gangster's" opening. His character seems to enjoy sadism more in the former movie, as he does in "Man on Fire." Hopefully, his charisma won't send the wrong message to would-be "gangstas." (Rapper Jay-Z already has an "American Gangster" album out, inspired by the film.)
Crowe is solid and low-key, keeping his head above the sewer in a troubled marriage and law enforcement agency.
But is it cool to be an honest cop? Maybe, Denzel better play one soon.