Present-day violence? No, thanks. Period violence? No problem. That seems to be the lesson from American Gangster's phenomenal $43.6 million opening weekend, which finally invigorated this fall's sluggish box office and this season's moribund Oscar race. After the commercial failure of topically brutal dramas Rendition and In the Valley of Elah (not to mention the domestic-crisis flops Reservation Road and Things We Lost in the Fire), this year's crop of ''awards films'' consisted of one commercial and critical disappointment after another. But the opening weekend for the '70s-set Gangster not only topped the previous record debuts of its two A-list stars, Denzel Washington (Inside Man's $29 million) and Russell Crowe (Gladiator's $34.8 million), it also bested The Departed, the R-rated crime drama that went on to win Best Picture last year.
So, can Gangster follow in The Departed's golden footsteps? The parallels are compelling: huge stars, a story that reflects contemporary tastes, and a revered filmmaker (three-time nominee Ridley Scott) who's never won an Oscar. But while a nod is likely, a win for Gangster is not guaranteed. The overall ''good, not great'' response from critics could hold it back, and some voters might not want to reward ultraviolent crime sagas two years in a row. Still, Gangster does feature one respected performer who stands to earn her first career nomination: 83-year-old Ruby Dee, as Washington's domineering mother, may have just bitch-slapped her way to the big show in February.