Real life is not always compatible with ‘reel’ life. What this means is, not every true story can turn into a true work of cinematic art. For every pedestrian effort “based on…” someone or something that actually existed/exists, we get the rare gemstone that radiates beyond its ‘to tell the truth’ trappings. When it was announced that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe would star in a film about the heroin trade in ‘70s Harlem, American Gangster became a potential instant classic just waiting for box office canonization. Of course, few knew the project’s already jaded history and near disintegration. Yet when the movie finally hit theaters last Fall, the precarious beginnings yielded a solid mainstream hit. For all its glitz and glamour however, Gangster has so far failed to become legend. As part of the new three DVD deluxe edition released by Universal, we begin to gain some perspective on how this potential epic missed the mark.
For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, here is the breakdown. Frank Lucas, a low level hood from the Carolinas, was at one time the chief henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the don’s untimely death, the apprentice vowed to create the same kind of classy, corporate like Drug Empire as his mentor. Realizing that buying directly from the source can cut down on the middle man, and increase the product’s (heroin) purity, he travels to Bangkok to meet up with an old military friend. They strike a deal with the locals, and soon, kilos of high grade opiate are making their way in the metal coffins of fallen Vietnam vets.
It’s not long before Lucas owns the streets, and he brings his entire family up from the South to help him out. He even has the mafia buying their Blue Magic from his organization. When his cop buddy gets involved in graft and dope, honest officer Ritchie Roberts decides to bring down whoever is pushing. Of course he must cut through massive corruption among his fellow policeman, a lack of real leads, and Lucas’ expertly planned process. All it takes is a tip, and a trail to follow, and both sides of the law are destined to butt heads.
Sounds solid, right? It feeds the audience’s inherent love of crime and violence. And you’ve got Washington and Crowe near the top of their game as marquee matinee idols. So what went wrong? Why isn’t American Gangster
the post-millennial Scarface
, or a direct urban Godfather
? For the most part, the fault lies squarely with director Ridley Scott. Not satisfied to pare the narrative down to its essential elements, what should be a tight little thriller becomes one of the most bloated individual character studies ever. Lucas has several siblings and they each get their moment in the escalating running time. As the leads, Lucas and Roberts get their own elaborated (and belabored) backstorys. Very little of the actual mechanics of the drug racket is revealed and the subtext is very light on understandable ethics. We never once see characters contrite or repentant for their acts, and attention getting monologues replace scruples as the main social statement.
As a result, Gangster goes wonky in ways that even an extended director’s cut can’t fix. If anything, the main body of the Lucas/Roberts relationship should have been boiled down to the police procedural, leaving much of the superfluous personal ‘flavor’ out of the mix. We don’t care about our drug lord’s kin (they are cardboard cutouts of clichéd types) and Roberts’ parenting issues are never interesting. Yet somehow, Scott thinks this makes his leads more endearing and easy to identify with. Instead of humanizing them, however, such sidetracks deter from what we are really most concerned about. What ultimately saves the experience, turning it into a memorable entertainment, is the high level of craftsmanship. It’s almost as if the filmmakers knew that by delivering quality technical and production merits, the interpersonal issues could be overcome.
Ridley Scott almost confesses to as much during the DVD’s audio commentary. While he is defensive and quite defiant at times, he (along with a separately recorded screenwriter Steve Zaillian) spends a great deal of time praising the individuals behind the look and feel of the film. Scott is typically a technical narrator, offering perspective on how artisans recreate the look and feel of different eras. He’s also a stickler for the foundational aspects of the film medium. So one has to read in between the kudos to get to the meat - and during the course of the discussion, we hear a few faint mea culpas. They’re not obvious, but they hint at a director realizing he may have taken the wrong track now and again.
Of course, the one element here that tends to get lost in the glare of critical evaluation is why American Gangster got made in the first place. Without Scott, and his continuing connection to accidental A-lister Russell Crowe, this was a dead project. As Fallen Empire, the detailed and dense documentary on the film (included here as part of the extras) points out, the film was in the perpetual Hell of Hollywood’s development pipeline for years. Everyone from Don Cheadle to Benecio Del Toro was considered for the roles of Lucas and Roberts, respectively. Directors such as Terry George and, most famously, Antoine Fuqua, wanted to make this movie, but Universal continuously balked over budgetary concerns. Some have even suggested that Fuqua was the unfair recipient of some industry payback when his Training Day karma failed to carry over commercially to his decidedly odd take on King Arthur. That he was an African American filmmaker being replaced by a white Anglo Saxon added more fuel to the fire.
Indeed, one of the things DVD does best is provide creative and corporate context to the cinematic artform, and there’s no denying the power inherent in the American Gangster material. The chance to see Lucas and Roberts in person, discussing the era and their part within it, more than makes up for the lack of supporting evidence that everything in the film is 100% true - not that Scott and Zaillian don’t strive to convince us of the claim. Much of the aforementioned commentary track is taken up with point by point breakdowns on factual accuracies and fictional liberties, and yet very little mention is made of one Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. For those unfamiliar with the man, look up the nickname ‘Mr. Untouchable’ and you’re destined to find the New York Times Magazine cover story which crowned the drug lord with said moniker. Barnes claims that he was the real heroin king of Harlem (why anyone would want to argue over such a stature seems surreal) and a daring documentary released before Gangster seems to undermine much of what this dramatization has to offer.
Indeed, a main flaw in American Gangster is the underlying belief that we are getting a decidedly myopic and whitewashed view of this story. Lucas is referred to as “an illiterate Southern rube” by Barnes, and while such a putdown seems appropriate, considering their supposed street dealing rivalry, it makes the clean cut cosmopolitan version offered by Washington seem shallow at best, fake at the very worst. Gangster does pay the man lip service, offering Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as a clownish version of Barnes, but this doesn’t deflate the opposing positions. On the one hand, Scott and company argue that Lucas leapt into upper Manhattan, took the place of his mentor Bumpy Johnson, and single handedly rooted out the mafia in his African American neighborhood. Yet Marc Levin’s fact-based film of Barnes argues nearly the same exact thing - which goes to the very heart of the narrative.
In fact, one imagines that another way to make the film better was to simply remove the awkwardly righteous Roberts and stick with a Lucas vs. Barnes territorial showdown. While Crowe is fine in the role (though hardly believable as an American street cop), there is a hint of racial inequality in the personality he is given. Roberts is viewed as noble but flawed, married to the law as his personal life falls apart. He turns down bribes, refuses to keep thousands in unlaundered drug money, and basically makes his fellow officers uncomfortable with his ‘by the book’ bravado. He might make an intriguing yin to Lucas’ urbane yang, but the role is like subterfuge, undermining all the dramatic weight this story could hold. Toss in the fact that no one ever really pays for, or even addresses, the death of innocents at the hand of unrefined heroin, the destruction of Harlem, and the lingering poison that continues to possess the region some three decades later, and American Gangster becomes less than a classic.
Still, it’s hard to deny the inherent power in a group of well trained professionals doing some of their best work. Though it lacks the qualities that make something mythic (and the announced 18 minutes of added footage in the ‘director’s cut’ does little to change that), the film remains a genuine journeyman joust. There are times when Scott seems the perfect director for the material. He has always been proficient in producing period specific spectacle, be it ancient Roman (Gladiator) or completely imaginary (Legend, Blade Runner). He also has a wonderful way with actors, using his background in advertising to consistently put their best face forward. There are also moments when the Englishman is clearly out of his league. The various party scenes play like a white dude’s misinterpretation of Soul Train, and we never get a real feel of the Harlem community pre or post Lucas’ lamentable influence. It all stays the same - slightly sepia toned and CGI tweaked.
No one knows the real story about what happened to New York City’s black population during the late ‘60s through early ‘80s except the people themselves and the participants in their racket. Roberts may have indeed been a saint in slightly baggy street clothes, Lucas an amenable snake in the ghetto grass. And Barnes may have been both clown and competitor. But when one steps back out of the limelight glare given off by American Gangster, when they whittle away the superfluous moments of movie iconography and staged seriousness, it’s clear that, somewhere amidst the pomp and circumstance, someone is lying. What happened in real life just didn’t make it over into “reel” life. Perhaps if all the facts were presented, unfiltered and unadorned, we’d get a better handle on the truth. But as this otherwise stellar DVD of American Gangster suggests, accuracy is a lot like opinion - everyone has their own version.
American Gangster: Theatrical Version
American Gangster: Director’s Cut