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|Play It Again, Denzel - Page 2|
Eventually Crowe is moved off the street and put on special assignment to track down the city's big drug dealers. His target becomes Denzel Washington, an elegant and impeccably got-up drug tycoon named Frank Lucas. Silky smooth and ingratiating, Washington conveys a barely submerged aura of danger in whatever he does; he's capable of sudden, shocking violence whenever he feels circumstances demand it. He sees himself as an inspiration for black men who want to be rich and powerful in a world in which the odds are stacked against them. To rise to the top, he's willing to defy whatever stands in his way--even the mafia--and buy dope wherever he can to become the most successful dealer in the world. And at the top, he's surrounded by precious objets d'art he polishes and pampers. We, too, could get seduced by beautiful stuff, even if it's a lot of trouble.
American Gangster explores the moral ambiguities of the drug trade by making a "bad guy" so appealing to the audience that our sympathies subtly shift from honest cop Crowe to Washington's classy, albeit ruthless, drug dealer. It skillfully introduces "villains"---like bad cop Josh Brolin---whom we're cued to feel are much worse than the bad guy played by the irresistible Washington, whom we've cheered on in so many previous films.
Underplaying his role, Russell Crowe pitches his performance to be a perfect low-key counterpoint to the dazzling Washington. He drifts in and out of range and awareness, disguising himself or blending into the crowd, always holding back some of his power, making sure he's underestimated until he's ready to strike. The two stars are kept apart until they finally come together to cut a deal at the film's conclusion. After hours of debate and negotiation, they have a final moment of shared insight and mutual understanding. As they make common cause, all the suffering that Washington's drug- dealer character has created fades into the background. In the mythic world of Hollywood and its archetypes, we're finally allowed to root for both the good guy and the bad guy.