In a cool palette of faded grays and blues, director Ridley Scott's American Gangster tells the story of Frank Lucas, a heroin crime lord in 1970s Harlem, and of Richie Roberts, a cop who aims to take Lucas down. From the get-go, it's appropriately epic: The first time we see Lucas, he's lighting a man on fire, while our introduction to Roberts consists of him delivering a subpoena by breaking into someone's house and then beating the shit out of them. Both men, despite their cruelty, are incredibly likeable.

Based on a true story, American Gangster is written by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, Gangs of New York, All the King's Men), who's never met an Oscar bait-y, "based on a true story" tale he didn't like. But while Zaillian's weaker scripts lose their characters in all the Important History he's trying to convey, here it's all about Lucas and Roberts, played by Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Yes, American Gangster touches on all sorts of things—Vietnam, police corruption, urban decay, race—but at its entertaining core, it's really just about two badasses going head to head.

Lucas' is the more immediately gripping story, if only because it so perfectly perverts the American dream. As a lowly assistant to Harlem gangster "Bumpy" Johnson, Lucas thrives after Johnson dies—seeing a hole in Harlem's drug market, Lucas uses the army's planes flying from Vietnam to America to smuggle heroin into the US, where he stamps it with a brand name, "Blue Magic," sells it for half the price of his competition, and begins raking in the dough. Soon, the clever, ruthless Lucas has more control over organized crime than the mafia and is the unofficial ruler of Harlem.

Roberts, on the other hand, is nearly Lucas' opposite: A fuckup as a husband and father, he's a Boy Scout New Jersey cop, as willing to break down crooks' doors with a sledgehammer as he is to turn in his fellow cops if he suspects they're on the take (which most of them are). Eventually, the rough, tough Roberts grimly sets about tracking down whoever's behind the Blue Magic that's flooding Harlem's streets. And so there's a cat, and there's a mouse, and the only question is which is which.

Anchored by excellent performances by Washington and Crowe, Ridley Scott is content to keep this one at a steady, low boil—it's not a film about confrontation so much as about the inevitability of it. Save for a stunning and violent raid on a drug packaging operation, most of American Gangster is dedicated to the riveting personalities of Lucas and Roberts. The charismatic Lucas is at once captivating and ruthless, someone who watches out for his own but won't hesitate to shoot a rival pointblank in the face on a crowded sidewalk. The hardnosed Roberts, meanwhile, struggles to direct his life—taking the bar exam, halfheartedly fighting for custody of his son—until he seizes on the target of the elusive, powerful Lucas. It's a struggle that wouldn't be nearly as captivating if Washington and Crowe weren't in such total control, nor if Scott wasn't able to subtly but powerfully keep the film tense—except, that is, for a few loud, violent moments of release, when we're reminded, albeit briefly, that this story of two men has far greater repercussions.