American Gangster

dir: Ridley Scott
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There was a time when Ridley Scott’s name commanded respect. People took him seriously. No matter the film or the subject matter, people would say “Well, this is the guy who made Blade Runner and Alien, so let’s all gather round and listen to what he has to say.” Film wankers and aesthetes (such as myself) would reach even further back and say “Well, this is the guy who made The Duellists, so he’s capable of greatness, so let’s eagerly anticipate his next movie with, um, eager anticipation.”

Then he made Hannibal.

After that, Scott’s feet of clay kept growing to swallow up the rest of his body and brain, to the extent where he just seemed like every other British-born Hollywood hack, as capable of an okay film or a terrible shitfest as any other director.

With American Gangster, he’s gone all out to craft an American Prestige Epic worthy of Oscar nomination, critical column inches and applause from the sweatpants-wearing masses. Note the cast, the topic, and the length of the flick. No-one makes a flick this long (nearly three hours in the ‘unrated’ version) with this many A-listers with this subject matter unless they’re expecting, nay, demanding recognition in February / March.

Little golden Oscar-flavoured dildos for everybody.

Plus, it’s based on a true story. I mean, Based on a True Story, so we know it’s instantly more worthy than any other flick. Because who wants fiction when you can have Denzel Washington playing a real life scumbag?

Washington plays Frank Lucas, one of the most successful drug dealers in American history. They should be teaching this guy’s business techniques at Harvard Business School, at the Chicago School of Economics and MIT. That’s the Melbourne Institute of Technology, a small, four-storey building catering to gullible international students on Lonsdale Street, if you’ve never heard of it before.

We are introduced to Lucas via the novelty of watching him pour gasoline on a guy in a chair, set him on fire and then shoot him. Okay, so he’s a nasty piece of work.

Cut back in time, and Lucas is being lectured by his mentor, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), subject of a previous cinematic treatment called Hoodlum, starring Laurence Fishburne. Since Bumpy’s rise to power was covered there as the underworld king of Harlem, he doesn’t need to stick around here too long before dying and transferring the mantle of power to his protégé.

Yes, my entire knowledge of American history is based on movies. What’s it to you?

Lucas mourns the loss of his father figure, but intends not only to take over his empire, but to exceed him in scope, range and ruthlessness. He sets about his task with methodical precision, figuring out a way to bypass the usual channels of heroin importation in order to get a purer, cheaper product into the country with which to flood the market.

And flood he does. The Vietnam War, a source of horror and torment for so many other people, in his hands is the perfect opportunity to make big money, what he calls “white wealth”.

It’s a common theme of these kinds of flicks, and of Chris Rock’s stand-up routines that there’s a profound difference between being rich and being wealthy. Rich is some ball player or rapper who makes a million dollars and blows it all on drugs, divorce and law suit settlements only to die in debt a few years later. Rich is a guy who can afford a nice seat on a plane. Wealthy is the white guy who owns the plane. Rich is the dealer successful at scrambling on the street. Wealthy is the guy importing the stuff who never gets within 100kms of the product peddled. Wealth elevates entire communities, is inherited through the ages and results in lots of bored, sexually ambiguous young characters that populate the books of Bret Easton Ellis and the films of Whit Stillman.

Wankers, in other words, but wealthy, aristocratic, landed gentry wankers at the very least.

Lucas, taking lessons from his mafia cohorts, surrounds himself with brothers and cousins willing to do his bidding and manage his empire. That family touch he feels will protect him from the vagaries of a cruel world, and the potential for gripes and greed to rise to murderous levels. You know, because no-one’s ever killed a family member over drugs or money.

Lucas’s rise to power runs parallel to two other events of differing magnitude: the course of the Vietnam War, and the appointment of an honest cop to an anti-drug task force trying to combat the increasing drug problem in the States. He’s only supposed to care about drugs in New Jersey, but Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) unavoidably gets drawn into the larger War on Drugs since most of it is coming in from New York anyway. He is, in contrast to most of the roles Crowe assays, something of a knockabout, shlubby galoot instead of the furiously monomaniacal cop we’d rightly expect. But he is no less relentless than we’d expect either.

He realises, as we do, that something has changed in the environment, in the battlefield and the battle as it will be fought. He knows that few other cops can be relied upon, since they are on the take and they distrust those, like himself, who are not. And he also sees that some cops are even more dangerous than the criminals they’re supposed to be pursuing.

Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) is a moustachioed, slick haired criminal with a badge. He wants to get a taste of everything that’s going on, and is nasty enough and self-assured enough even to give pause to a big galoot like Russel Crowe. If you think that Crowe isn’t that good an actor, then I urge you to watch the scene where Det Roberts tries to convince the group of New York detectives led by Trupo that the money they’ve just monstered out of a courier is from his department. Crowe manages to capture, despite his age and bulk, the awkwardness and embarrassment of a teenager standing his ground before some tough cops he’s both afraid of and awed by. It’s a killer scene.

Since the era depicted, at least based on the relentless soundtrack choices with every 70s song you can imagine, is the era of The French Connection and Serpico, it’s not a stretch to say that the police procedural aspects of the story have a hint, a tone perhaps homaging the two cinematic classics. It’s beyond a coincidence, because there are a few visual and thematic cues to deliberately try to remind us. And I’ve got no problem with that, because it all works.

Though there is certainly violence, this should not be mistaken for an action film by any stretch of the imagination. A lot happens, but a lot of the story is told simply through the telling: there’s a lot of talk, punctuated with seconds of action, not counting the undercover pursuit of a suspect under the el train, or the events at the Ali-Frazier heavyweight title fight that brings Frank to the attention of those he doesn’t want to be noticed by.

On the most part, Frank does approach his business methodically, without ego and without flamboyance. He knows what wealth is his for the making if he just manages to balance all the complex elements of his world without arrogance, and isn’t interested in dressing like a pimp or a gangster. On the occasion where he makes the mistake of giving in to a questionable fashion choice in order to make his wife happy, he and she pay the price for it, which is appropriate.

For all his proclamations about the right way to behave and do business, when things go wrong he has noticeable lapses in judgement and no trouble lashing out violently at those around him. So the “different” kind of criminal, this new American Gangster as much a product of and repudiation of the American Dream, is shown, ultimately, to be little different from the lowliest thug.

It brings up the point that Denzel doesn’t really play Lucas any differently from how he plays any other role he ever plays. Same level of intensity whether he’s playing the coach of a debating team, football team, corrupt cop, FBI agent, trumpet player: it’s all Denzel all the time. Still, it’s Denzel. He makes Lucas look far more intelligent than he probably was, but also like an intensely uptight, rigid and soulless individual. Whether he was like that regardless of his career choices, or whether “the life” made him like that, we’ll never know.

As a contrast of characters, they never (thankfully) go the length of contrasting the cop with the crim to display the ways that their lives and characters cross over: Lucas is a remorseless creature with no regard for others but smart enough to understand how a Prince of the city (in the Machiavellian, underworld sense) rules his subjects. Roberts is an honest cop willing to bend plenty of laws but not break them in pursuit of his prey. And, despite his faults he’s not a cop rendered monstrous by job or ego.

Sure, there’s not a lot that’s brand new here, much is familiar even if you don’t know the specific story. But, and this is what amazes me the most, Scott really has put together a very impressive film. I’ve seen enough of these ‘rise to power’ films to know what’s going to happen before it happens, and to know which ones have moments of insight and which are solely transgressive pleasures. Or which ones are just outright shit.

American Gangster tells a familiar story really, very well. It takes its time, rushes nothing, and fleshes out a story that is made to feel less generic and familiar because of that fleshing out.

I really enjoyed it, and that surprises me, because I know how much of this story is bullshit (the relationship with Bumpy Johnson, the claim that he only burned corrupt cops, the method of bringing smack into the country), and how much of it is true (there once was a guy called Frank Lucas). And none of that concerns me, because the story is told so well. It looks a treat, and even if it’s too long, well, I didn’t feel bored for a moment. Well, not too many moments.

It is prestige filmmaking, and is better than anything Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Scott of the Antarctic, Scott Baio or Scott McClennan have been responsible for in recent memory. Not for everyone, but for a lucky few. Enjoy.

7 times shooting someone in broad daylight on a busy city street doesn’t strike me as the actions of a supergenius criminal mastermind out of 10

“It's not in my best interest to say this Frank, but quitting while you're ahead, is not the same as quitting.” – American Gangster.