[2 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
AMERICAN GANGSTER (dir. Ridley Scott)
Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters—at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?
Apparently, screenwriter Steve Zaillian and director Ridley Scott seem to think so. They’ve taken the story of Harlem drug king Frank Lucas and turned it—and him—into a symbol of pre-‘70s smarts and racially irrelevant success. Then they parallel it with the story of an honest cop vowing to clean up the streets, along with his fellow crooked officers. Add Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as the leads and the results speak or themselves. Or at least they try too. Overlong by at least 20 minutes, and missing many of the detail that turns such cops and robbers sagas into glorified Greek tragedies, American Gangster is polished filmmaking that frequently misses the inherent spectacle of the story it’s telling. Then it discovers there was very little scope to begin with.
When we first meet Lucas, he’s a henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the man’s untimely death, the apprentice vows 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 H 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 North Carolina 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.
American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details. There is not much more to Frank Lucas than honor among heroin dealers, and Ritchie Roberts is the only incorruptible lawman in all of New York proper. Together, they are the karmic balance of good vs. evil set within a city drowning in dope. Granted, we learn that Lucas is as cold blooded as they come, killing rivals in broad daylight. And Roberts is a womanizing heel, incapable of holding onto the principles in his private life that he cherishes in public. So we get some sort of dimension in how the characters are portrayed. But unlike films such as Goodfellas, Scarface, and the Godfather saga, American Gangster functions on a level outside of crime. Sure, the smack trade is part and parcel of the narrative, but it’s the men, not the setup of the syndicate, that really matters.
Indeed, this is perhaps the most overblown character study ever committed to film. At nearly 150 mins, Scott can’t stop expanding the personality playing field. Lucas has six other siblings and each one gets his moment in the emblematic sun. Both his mother and his Puerto Rican beauty queen wife have their own sequences of self-righteous indignation. On Roberts side, we find his unhappy, soon to be ex, a woman who responds to all interpersonal disappointment by dropping names of the mobsters her partner is pals with. Then there’s the soon to be junkie colleague who looks like Serpico crossed with Superfly. You just know he’s going to get a dramatic send-off. Scott also shows us the street level recruits who make up Roberts newly formed federal task force. By the time he’s done, we expect American Gangster to give us the backstory on every waitress, bouncer, and soul singer we see.
The morals are also misplaced here. Lucas is a scum sucking dope peddler, a man systematically addicting and killing his own people in the name of free enterprise and sticking it to the “white man”. Frankly, racist Italians giving blacks a means of self destruction makes a whole lot more sense—at least from an unenlightened, ‘60s/’70s standpoint—than a smooth talking, educated brother. Lucas’ motives are never explained save for a single speech where he indicates a desire to do for himself and his family. Great, and apparently, it doesn’t matter that all of Harlem is strung out as a result. Even worse, when we get to the last act confrontation with authorities, Lucas stands his ground—that is, until a massive jail sentence is dangled in front of his face. Then he instantaneously turns snitch—but since he’s ratting on dirty cops and underworld crime lords, who cares… right?
As a result, American Gangster goes more than a bit cockeyed once in a while. When Roberts turns over nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills (standard operating procedure at the time would have been to pocket the loot), he becomes the pariah of the department. Yet we’re supposed to infer why his fellow officers hate him—something about rubbing their nose in their petty, obvious bribery. Similarly, Lucas’ violent outbursts are meant to marginalize his suave and debonair demeanor. But you’re dealing with Denzel Washington here, an emblematic figure who can make baby rape seem cool. In fact, it’s so hard to paint either character in a corruptible light that when Scott assembles a Thanksgiving Day montage highlighting the horrors of Harlem, it plays like disconnected blight dragging us away from the real picture at hand. For as gaudy and gratuitous as they were, films like Scarface and The Godfather never forgot they were dealing with killers. This may be the first mob movie that turns its villains into viable vehicles for underhanded respect.
In fact, all of American Gangster plays like a perfectly formed post-millennial pastiche of the Playstation Generation’s greatest imagined gangland hits. It readily recalls every Scorsese-like step into the realm of such dark, strictly business realities and underlying urban decay. While set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the look is less dated and more fashion model post-modern. There is a swagger that the story fails to fully earn, and a matter of fact quality that underlines the story’s inherent superficiality.
Intriguingly enough, there is a documentary out currently entitled Mr. Untouchable. It deals with the exact same facts, except this time, we learn the lessons of Harlem’s decline into heroin from fellow dealer Nicky Barnes. Said film features details American Gangster skims over (why the drug cutting gals are naked, the Italians ultimate aims) while making a case for Barnes as everything Lucas is portrayed as. It’s a compelling argument, one that Ridley Scott and his A-list almost-epic fails to fully embrace. American Gangster is a very good movie. Somehow, one senses, it could have been grand.