Sunday, February 10, 2008

American Gangster

American Gangster is a 2007 crime film written by Steve Zaillian and directed by Ridley Scott. The movie stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Washington portrays Frank Lucas, a real-life heroin kingpin from Harlem who smuggled heroin into the US on American service planes returning from the Vietnam War. Crowe portrays Richie Roberts, a detective attempting to bring down Lucas' drug empire.[2] Filming was done on location in New York City. American Gangster was released in the United States and Canada on November 2, 2007.

Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a disciplined and intelligent black gangster, runs much of Harlem and imparts his wisdom onto his former driver turned right-hand man, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Johnson dies of a heart attack in 1968, at an electronics store. Frank dislikes the new, flashy gangsters and decides to take control. To gain money and power, he travels to Bangkok, Thailand, and with the help of his cousin who is an Army Senior NCO, strikes a deal with a Chinese nationalist general in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, who supplies him with pure heroin. Starting with a first shipment of 100 kilograms, Frank has the drugs transported back to America via military service planes. His final shipment comprises two tonnes hidden in the coffins of seven dead U.S. soldiers from the Vietnam War.

Frank’s unique drug supply enables him to sell potent drugs (“Blue Magic” heroin) at low prices - undercutting his competition which, the film suggests, is largely heavily cut (diluted) heroin stolen and redistributed by corrupt narcotics police officers. He quickly makes a fortune and buys several nightclubs and apartments. He moves his family from North Carolina to New Jersey, where he purchases a large estate for his humble mother. His five brothers are enlisted as his lieutenants in the NYC drug trade – forming “The Country Boys,” who work together to traffic and sell dope on Harlem streets. During his rise, Frank meets and falls in love with Eva, a Puerto Rican beauty queen. Through his discipline, organization, and willingness to kill those in his way, Frank quickly rises to the top of the Harlem drug and crime scene.

Meanwhile, Newark, New Jersey detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is juggling a failing marriage, late-night law school classes, and his police career. When Richie and his partner, Javier Rivera, discover nearly $1 million in unmarked bills in a car, Richie resists temptation and turns the money in. His rare honest ways make him a hated member of his precinct, causing his partner to be exiled from the force, while Richie's rampant womanizing behavior leads his wife to seek a divorce and custody of their son. After his exiled partner dies from overdosing on Blue Magic, Richie's honesty catches him a break when his superior Captain Lou Toback (Ted Levine) puts him in charge of a newly created task force to stop drug trafficking in Essex County, New Jersey and New York City. Richie handpicks honest cops and gets to work on finding who is supplying Blue Magic.

MANOHLA DARGIS in the New York Times

Greatness hovers just outside “American Gangster,” knocking, angling to be let in. Based in rough outline on the flashy rise and fall of a powerful 1970s New York drug lord, Frank Lucas, the film has been built for importance, with a brand-name director, Ridley Scott, and two major stars, Denzel Washington as Lucas, and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the New Jersey cop who brings him down. It’s a seductive package, crammed with all the on-screen and off-screen talent that big-studio money can buy, and filled with old soul and remixed funk that evoke the city back in the day, when heroin turned poor streets white and sometimes red.

This being an American story, as its title announces and Steven Zaillian’s screenplay occasionally trumpets, there’s plenty of blue in the mix too, worn by some of New York’s very un-finest. Mr. Lucas was among the city’s most notorious underworld hustlers, but one of the film’s points (at times you could call it a message) is that he was just doing what everyone with ambition, flair and old-fashioned American entrepreneurial spirit was doing, including cops: getting a piece of the action. His piece just happened to be bigger than most, stretching across Harlem and snaking into other neighborhoods, into alleys and apartments where someone with ready cash and a hungry vein was always aching to get high.

You see a few of those veins, popping, all but jumping in anticipation of another hit. Sometimes the needle slides into a clean arm, though every so often the camera comes uncomfortably close as a spike jabs into a suppurating wound. You could call these images metaphoric, something about the oozing, bleeding body of the exploited underclass, but mostly they’re just graphic evidence of the damage done. Despite the intermittent nod to someone nodding out and even dying, this isn’t about the suffering of addicts or of those forced to watch their neighborhoods perish alongside them. It’s about good guys and bad, a classic story of white hats and black squaring off at the corral at 116th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Mr. Crowe, his jaw thrust forward as aggressively as his pelvis, wears the white hat, while the silky, smooth-moving, smooth-talking Mr. Washington wears the black. They’re irresistible, though neither possesses the movie because each occupies a separate if parallel story line. Mr. Washington has the more developed and dynamic role, which he inhabits easily, whether flashing his wolfish grin or draining the affect from Lucas’s face to show the soulless operator beneath the swagger and suit. Lucas’s rival, Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr. in a sharp, small turn), wore the pimp threads and fedoras the size of manhole covers (he also read Machiavelli). Lucas dressed like the businessman he believed himself to be and was.

Formally, the plot takes the shape of a simple braid, with Lucas’s and Roberts’s stories serving as individual narrative strands that become more and more tightly plaited. Complicating this simple, at times overly mechanical back-and-forth design is a third player with a smaller strand, a corrupt New York detective, Trupo (Josh Brolin in a knockout performance), who shakes down Lucas and other larcenous types. The baddest bad man in town, a thug’s thug, Trupo wears his power as confidently as the long black leather coat he whips on for battle. He hassles Lucas, who hates him in turn, and openly indulges his contempt for Roberts because the other cop is honest, which means he’s a threat to Trupo and his kind.

It’s hard not to fall for these men pumping like pistons across the screen, which is as much part of the movie’s allure as its problem. Mr. Scott doesn’t escape the contradiction that bedevils almost every Hollywood movie about gangsters, which cry shame, shame, as they parade their stars, crank the soul and showcase the foxy ladies, the swank digs and rides. Mr. Washington obviously enjoys sinking into villainy, but he never finds the lower depths. There’s little of the frightening menace the actor brought to “Training Day,” where you see the pleasure his character derives from his sadism. Even when Lucas goes ballistic, beating a man to pulp, the film tosses in a laugh about the proper way to clean a bloodied rug.

Seriousness has always been one of Mr. Scott’s strengths as a director, but when his material has skewed too light, too frivolous, the gravity and purpose etched into each one of his meticulous, beautiful images have also helped sink films. He couldn’t make an ironic gesture if he wanted to, or toss off an idea or a shot. Everything counts, even if it shouldn’t. (Such was the case with his and Mr. Crowe’s last collaboration, their 2006 Provençal folly, “A Good Year,” a soufflé made with lead.) Mr. Scott makes the case for his and his new film’s seriousness in its opener, which shows Lucas tossing a match at a man who has been doused with gasoline and then pumping bullets into the burning, screaming figure.

This is the match that ignites the story of a criminal overlord who, without mercy or remorse, takes down one human being after another, many of whom, like the addicts he supplied, were as helpless as that burning man. By rights this match should also ignite a tragedy, and you can almost feel Mr. Scott trying to coax the material away from its generic trappings toward something rarefied, something like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 definitive American story, “The Godfather.” He comes closest to that goal with the suggestion that the lethal pursuit of the American dream is not restricted to one or two families — the Corleones, say, or the Sopranos — but located in a network of warring tribes that help to obscure the larger war of all against all.

The America in this film isn’t a melting or even a boiling pot; it’s a bitter object lesson about the logic of market-driven radical individualism, wherein a self-styled Horatio Alger type, thwarted by racial prejudice and born into poverty in North Carolina, grows up to become a powerful captain of the illegal-drug industry. Lucas pulls himself up by his bootstraps, a gun tucked into his belt, and becomes a folk hero (and a pop culture idol) who doles out free turkeys to the very community he helps enslave with narcotics, fear and despair. He gathers his relatives around to help him, modeling himself after the Mafia families with whom he does business. He builds a gang, but only so it can serve his personal desires.

The bottom line of what a Frank Lucas does — to people, to neighborhoods — doesn’t make for entertainment. And so, despite Mr. Scott’s talent for trouble and shadows (the cinematographer Harris Savides bleeds all the bright color from this world), he soon loosens his grip on Lucas. He lingers over the garish surfaces and violence, and the exotic locales where Lucas found a steady supply of pure heroin. He quotes “Super Fly,” fires up Bobby Womack, samples Richard M. Nixon and tosses in a pinch of black power rhetoric to mask the rot. He distracts and entertains until the divide between his seriousness of purpose and the false glamour that wafts around American gangsters, and invariably trivializes their brutality, becomes too wide to breach.

Like many moviemakers (and watchers), Mr. Scott loves his bad guy too much. And by turning Lucas into a figure who seduces instead of repels, an object of directorial fetishism and a token of black resistance, however hollow, he encourages us to submit as well. Part of this is structural and economic: blood and nihilism are always better sells than misery and hopelessness. Yet there’s also a historical dimension, because when Lucas strolls down a fast-emptying Harlem street after putting a bullet into another man’s head and the camera pulls back for the long view, you are transported into the realm of myth. Once, another gunman, or the director, might have taken direct aim at Lucas. But the world belongs to gangsters now, not cowboys.

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