Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Ridley Scott and Steven Zaillian's sprawling account of real-life Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas' rise and fall breaks no new ground. But its vivid sense of place and time make it compulsively watchable, even at a running time of two and a half hours.

New York, 1968: Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (an uncredited Clarence Williams III), dean of post-World War II Harlem gangsters, dies suddenly, leaving a power vacuum. To the astonishment of the neighborhood cadre of small-time hoodlums looking to move up in the underworld, Johnson's longtime driver — self-effacing, North Carolina–born Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) — steps in and takes over. Having spent two decades quietly watching and learning from Johnson, Lucas methodically kills anyone who gets in his way, imports family members to assume key posts in his rapidly expanding organization, and delivers top-notch smack — cannily branded "Blue Magic" — at bargain prices. Lucas' genius lies in focusing on the business of the drug business: Where other dealers see only lucrative customers in addicted war veterans pining for pure Vietnamese dope, Lucas sees a way to cut out the middleman, buying uncut dope in Thailand and brazenly smuggling it into the U.S. aboard military transport planes. Unlike flamboyant rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr., in what amounts to a brief cameo despite his featured billing), Lucas keeps a low profile and encourages his associates to do the same. The one time he ignores his own advice, attending a high-profile boxing match in a pimpalicious chinchilla coat and matching hat — both gifts from his beautiful wife (Lymari Nadal) — Lucas winds up on the radar of rogue cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Roberts is a rogue because he's compulsively honest in a police force riddled with corruption and because he believes that a black man is capable of beating the Mafia at their own game.

Though Zaillian and Scott aspire to the epic gravitas of THE GODFATHER (1972), they deliver a classed-up version of the blaxploitation films that made badass icons of drug lords and pimps. But they have a keen eye for New York in the bad old days, plus a strong supporting cast that includes Ruby Dee, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, Carla Gugino, Roger Guenveur Smith, Joe Morton, Jon Polito, Norman Reedus and Kevin Corrigan. But the cast's white-hot center is in Washington's Frank Lucas: He nails Lucas' legendary charm and his capacity for violence that's never far from the surface.