American Gangster represents one of the great tragedies of modern cinephelia, in that the exposure of film goers to the internet has made them reactionary and uncontemplative fools. They do not see a film a having merits, but criticizes a film because of shared tropes with other better known films. As such this film has gone greatly forgotten, criticized for 'not being great'
This film IS a great film. A monumental film even, weighed down because it was made 35 years too late with an audience overly exposed to tvtropes. The film, in its superior director's cut, is an achievement of modern cinematic artistry. But it died culturally for no other reason than it approached organized crime as a mythological creature much like the Godfather.
This ties directly into the storytelling of American Gangster. This is myth making in the modern world. We follow the rise of a man to prominence in the criminal underworld, and shows his journey and fall and the myth that builds around him in broad but subtle strokes. The counter tale of the lawyer cop is another myth in of itself, his pursuit of his nemesis and the pyrrhic victories it yields. And yet, running seemingly counter to this mythological status that would have made it a true life Godfather clone, is the deconstruction of myth. For all the grandiose rise and fall of the characters, they are not simple iconography dictated by the rules of conventional hollywood storytelling. Instead it seems as if the film captures real people in the roles, who then struggle to escape the limitations of the characters they play. Denzel Washington's character is a man who struggles against the inescapable persona of a monster he created. Russell Crowe's character struggles to escape the cliches of being a police officer in the seventies.
In terms of visuals, this film is virtually peerless. It strikingly stylized, while seemingly natural. Real world projects and manhattan skyscrapers become towering mountains much like that of vietnam's mountains. It is this strong use of the landscape and environment that brings this world to life.
I can not recommend this film enough.
Also, if you watch closely, in this film is greatest performance ever put on screen. Watch the role of the Maintenance worker who sells Ritchie the church.