They greet each other as you'd expect two alpha males would. Backs are slapped. Biceps are squeezed. Red meat and top-shelf tequila are ordered. Sports are discussed. Antlers lock. It's been a year since Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe finished their work together on the gritty, bruising crime epic American Gangster, a year in which Washington directed the upcoming drama The Great Debaters and Crowe shot the Western 3:10 to Yuma. But when the two meet on a late-summer evening at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, the thrill of their mano a mano matchup is still fresh in their minds. ''It's like a good fight,'' Washington says. ''It's like getting in there with a heavyweight you just let it rip and see what happens.''
Directed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster chronicles the rise to power of real-life 1970s Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Washington) and the efforts of a dogged cop, Richie Roberts (Crowe), who sought to bring him down. The film (due Nov. 2) charts the parallel stories of two paradoxical adversaries. One was a traditional family man who built a ruthless empire by smuggling heroin from Southeast Asia in the coffins of American soldiers; the other, an honest detective with a weakness for womanizing. Along the way, it reverberates with echoes of classic gangster, blaxploitation, and corrupt-cop movies of the '70s. ''It's like a 2007 French Connection in a way,'' says Scott, ''with a little bit of The Godfather rolled in.''
The film's backstory is itself packed with so many twists, it's become the stuff of industry lore. The project dates back to 2000, when producer Brian Grazer bought the rights to a New York magazine profile of Lucas by writer Mark Jacobson. In the fall of 2004, American Gangster was set to begin production, with director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) at the helm and Washington playing Lucas opposite Benicio Del Toro. Then, just weeks before shooting, the project suddenly fell apart, as Universal executives grew anxious over a budget that had ballooned to $100 million. Thanks to a pay-or-play deal that guaranteed his fee, Washington walked away with $20 million. Universal and Grazer retreated to lick their wounds. ''We had a pledge never to speak the words American Gangster again,'' Grazer says.
The pledge didn't last. Remaining desperate to salvage the project, Grazer brought in writer-director Terry George (Reservation Road ) to reconceive Steve Zaillian's original script as a lean $50 million drama, but that stripped-down approach never gained traction. Finally, early last year, Grazer brought Zaillian's script back to Scott, who'd passed on the project years before to make Kingdom of Heaven. The director signed on, as did Crowe, who had developed a close relationship with Scott on the swords-and-sandals smash Gladiator and last year's A Good Year. Washington was lured back by the prospect of working with Crowe, who'd starred opposite him years before as a cyber-serial killer in the 1995 thriller flop Virtuosity. Yet again, Universal executives decided to mount American Gangster, at a budget, ironically, of $100 million a massive outlay for a period crime picture, particularly given the additional millions in sunk costs. ''It's not a high-concept comedy, it's not a fantasy movie, it's not a four-quadrant movie,'' says Grazer. ''Ultimately, it's kind of a miracle I got it made.''
Just how tantalized audiences are by the prospect of watching two Oscar-winning powerhouses slug it out on screen will largely determine American Gangster's fate. When the two stars finally stepped before the cameras during a blazing summer in Harlem, the anticipation was palpable. ''Everybody was hanging around the monitors just to see what we'd come up with,'' Crowe says. ''They'd say 'Cut' and the room would stay completely f---ing silent.''
A year later, we reunited the heavy hitters for another round.
NEXT PAGE: ''We're all squared. You're still one drop of saliva up on me. But other than that, we're even.''