The makers of American Gangster should count themselves lucky to have Denzel Washington, and more importantly Denzel Washington's face. It's quite an interesting face. Not exactly the face of a classic movie star, though he has their charm; not the face of a '70s Method actor, though he has their intensity. It is his face and his alone, quiet but expressive, hinting at things left unsaid. And in this film, more than any of his other roles that I can recall, it is a tired face.

Washington plays Frank Lucas, a real-life figure who in the period from 1969-74 ruled over the New York heroin trade by selling the purest smack ever seen on American streets at the lowest prices of the era, by virtue of smuggling it directly from Cambodia. His opposite number is Russell Crowe as Detective Richie Roberts of the Essex County, NJ police force, who finds himself effectively alone at the top of a federal hunt to topple Lucas's empire.

In truth, it's an unmistakably familiar story, but something about its execution here feels fresh anyway. I'm sure it's not only Washington's presence, but that certainly does help. Lucas is one of the very best examples in recent cinema of an archetype older than the talkies: the poor kid who gets in with the friendly local crime lord and ultimately becomes a crime lord himself. It's a classic "perversion of the American dream" tale that has by now become almost more ubiquitous than the standard Horatio Alger model that it so cheerfully corrupts.

Despite all that, despite the tendency towards mustiness in so many of the broad strokes and tiny details, Frank Lucas feels a little bit different than all of his dozens of predecessors, and there are many reasons why, but let me reiterate: Denzel Washington, and his wonderful actorly face, whereon rage and greed and contentment all play out with a certain world-weariness.

But as much as I love that actor in this role, it's certainly the case that the story is told very well on its own merits by writer Steve Zaillian (who comes very close to redeeming the stream of trash he's been splashing around in these 14 years since Schindler's List) and director Ridley Scott (who needs far more redemption than one film can offer; let's say that this makes up for A Good Year). On paper, it's obvious what the story is: Roberts tracking down Lucas, with a splash of Lucas's rise to power and Roberts's initial fall from grace that gives both men an urgent arc. In the film that's nowhere near as clear or neat as all that, and all sorts of story threads get tangled up with one another and it's not at all clear what the primary arc is supposed to be at all. Roberts isn't even aware of Lucas until the one-hour mark or longer, well after a great many scenes of Lucas establishing his empire in Harlem and southeast Asia.

It would be easy to accuse the story of being too slow, "boring" if you prefer, but the way that the story casually insinuates itself rather than springing out noisily right off the bat is quite refreshing and speaks to the aspect of the film that is perhaps most successful, its depiction of society. In a world where The Wire exists, it is both perfectly natural and completely unfair that we should expect every drama about drug lords to involve sprawling, microscopic studies of the ecosystem of the drug war and the city in which the battles are fought, and there is nothing about American Gangster more impressive than how well it's able to stand in that shadow of that conspicuously brilliant series. Not with the same scope, of course - it's 157 minutes compared to 12 hours per season - but for a nominal cop thriller, there is a whole lot of in-depth sociology bouncing around this film's fantastically-evoked image of New York in the 1970s.

To capture this setting, Scott dials down rather substantially on his customary stylistic excess, to the point where the directing is close to being merely "functional" or "competent," although those words fail to capture the brisk pace with which the director ushers us through the story. What it really is, when all is said and done, is referential: the film is shot using the unflashy you-are-there street level technique of an inexpensive period film, fittingly given that the story is basically a dressed-up blaxploitation saga. There's not a whole lot that is conspicuously stylish, but most of the film is shot with an unobtrusive neo-noir language of light and shadow that works in a way gauche trickery couldn't equal, at least not with the same eye towards efficient storytelling.

Efficient is not the same as concise in this case, but that's fine as long as the sprawling, sometimes messy story concerns itself with the details around the edges of the central duo. The ensemble cast is brilliant, although only Washington and Crowe are given any chance to stand out (and although he is much overshadowed by his co-star, this is Crowe's finest in a few years, at least). After a certain while, the movie does devolve into a Where's Waldo game of B-list cameos, but most of the character actors dotted throughout are very good at creating the necessary backdrop for the stars to square off.

The strange thing is that as things go on, the squaring off becomes increasingly less interesting than simply watching those fringes, and reveling in the detail with which the streets and housing projects have been recreated. While it's true that the film's sense of place would mean little without a story to rest on, it is also true that the film's story could only grow out of a well-defined place, and so the film becomes a holistic entity where text and mise en scène play off each other and build upon one another. This is a supremely well-crafted film.