In 1972 The Daily Express worked itself into a froth of indignation over the release of the film Superfly, a so-called blaxploitation picture about a cocaine dealer attempting to make the final score that would allow him to go straight. Of course such criticism as the Express articulated was less about the glamourising of the criminal classes, Hollywood had created the whole gangster genre on the back of that, than an expression of dismay at this latest in a spate of films showing the lifestyles and wayward fashion sense of uppity African-Americans. Superfly receives a name check in American Gangster when sober-suited drug baron Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington, Deja Vu) takes one of his younger siblings to task for his attention seeking attire. It is a resonant scene in a film full of allusion and subtext, as it is Lucas’ own fashion disaster that will lead to his eventual discovery and downfall. Allusion and subtext are fine in a serious movie, and here the director and leads take American Gangster very seriously indeed, but what is missing are the moments of insight that help an audience relate to the characters and begin to care.
Frank Lucas is the driver and right-hand man of Harlem gang boss ‘Bumpy’ Johnson (Clarence Williams III), the real life inspiration behind ‘Bumpy’ Jonas in Shaft (1971). Johnson is the mob enforcer for mafia operations in Harlem and on his death local factions once again threaten a turf war. Lucas determines to use his relative anonymity to create his own power base. The basis for Lucas’ bid for power is the supply of heroin with a high degree of purity which he sources directly from southeast Asia and markets as ‘Blue Magic’. Lucas forges a connection with a Kuomintang General, and uses American military flights to ship his heroin back to the United States, hidden in the coffins of dead servicemen. His success allows him to purchase a country estate in New Jersey and move his mother and brothers from North Carolina, to concentrate his drug empire as a family enterprise. Frank woos and wins Eva (Lymari Nadal, Battlestar Galactica) a Puerto Rican beauty queen, to be his wife, and he is in turn wooed by the local mafia who see him as a force for stability, although his Blue Magic product is putting their own drugs operation in jeopardy. Concluding a distribution deal with mafia boss Cattano (Armand Assante) Frank boasts to Eva that the mafia now work for him.
Insofar as films indulge in morality tales they have long since ceased to see things in terms of black and white. Consequently, Frank Lucas, although on the wrong side of the law, is revealed to have many estimable qualities, a strong sense of family, and sober habits; inevitably his nemesis, lawman Richie Roberts, is revealed to have feet of clay. Roberts, played by Russell Crowe (A Perfect Year, 3:10 To Yuma), is an honest cop in a NYPD that’s gone bad. The action takes place in the period following The French Connection drug bust, in which the record haul of illicit drugs mysteriously disappeared to turn up back on the streets. Roberts earns the ire of his colleagues by discovering nearly $1 million in unmarked bills in a car targeted in a stakeout and handing it all in. He and his partner are ostracised and his partner overdoses on Blue Magic, not realising its potency. Roberts’ honesty singles him out and he is allowed to pick a team not only to crack the drug traffic but also to root out the police corruption that is hampering police operations. Despite Roberts’ professional integrity his personal life is shown to be a disaster, his serial adultery has alienated his wife who is seeking court proceedings to gain custody of their son and leave the state. Roberts is overstretched, sitting for his bar exams to become a state prosecutor, as well as his new police duties, and suffering the strain of court proceedings, but still finds time to bed his female attorney who wants him to do her ‘like a cop’.
Ridley Scott and his writer Steven Zaillian (Gangs Of New York, Hannibal) arrange the film as a set of oppositions, the ‘good guys’ are corrupt, while the ‘bad guys’ are resourceful and have a code of honour. Frank Lucas is an irreproachable family man; Richie Roberts can’t keep it in his pants. At the beginning of the film ‘Bumpy’ Johnson dies in a store, bemoaning the facelessness of corporate America, Frank Lucas uses this anonymity to hide his own identity from the authorities. Frank is the epitome of restraint, and coolly executes a rival on the streets of Harlem in broad daylight, but explodes into violence when drug-fuelled horseplay results in a non-fatal shooting at a party and someone bleeds on an expensive rug. Where the film fails to engage is where it forgets that a visual medium shows rather than tells. One of the most effective sequences concerns Eva’s present of a chinchilla coat and hat for Frank, he visibly baulks at the ostentatious outfit but wears it to the Ali-Frasier fight, so as not to hurt her feelings. Seated ringside, Frank is drawn to the attention of not only Richie Roberts but also corrupt cop Trupo (Josh Brolin, Planet Terror) who targets Frank for protection money immediately after the latter’s wedding to Eva. On their return home, Frank flings the chinchilla coat onto the open fire acknowledging that ignoring his own standards has allowed someone to gain an advantage over him.
Another difficulty with a film such as this is the positioning of the moral compass. It is possible to make a film about an irredeemable villain and engage the audience with the protagonist’s audacity and ambition, but Scott seems uncertain how to present Frank Lucas. Denzel Washington is exemplary as ever but the performance is necessarily restrained and detached; Crowe, who told Empire (Nov. 2007) that he had to have his own role written up, is amiable enough but still has little to work with. There are no scenes where a gesture or an exchange delineates the characters in the way that they do in a masterpiece like The Godfather. Coppola had Vito Corleone turn down the opportunity to buy into the drug traffic, as if to give his family some moral high ground, but Corleone’s reasoning, that drugs would bring organised crime into the homes of white middle America with inevitable retribution to follow, made sound self-interested business sense. Where Coppola left moral judgements to his audience, confident that they would come to care about the Corleones, Scott is heavy-handed, setting scenes of Lucas and his relatives enjoying a family meal, against a montage of degradation, depicting the cruel wasted lives of heroin users addicted to Blue Magic.
Part of the problem with the film is that the star leads do not share scenes until Lucas has been caught and the story is essentially over. If, as has been suggested, the film despite its documentary approach is rather less than scrupulously factual, it would not have damaged it to invent an early encounter between Lucas and Roberts if only for dramatic effect.
Pedants and popular culture navel-gazers might enjoy the scene where Roberts’ federal superior ridicules his targeting of Lucas, because the latter is both a negro and a nobody. In Goldfinger (1964), the eponymous villain declares that there have been creative geniuses in every field of endeavour except crime, up until that point in time. In Ian Fleming’s novel Live And Let Die, James Bond is briefed that the negro races are turning up geniuses in all the major professions, so why not crime.
Among the strong supporting cast Carla Gugino (Night At The Museum, Rise: Blood Hunter) does much with the small part of Laurie, Richie’s estranged wife; it will be interesting to see what she makes of the role of Silk Spectre, if ‘Watchmen’ meets its release date in 2009. As Eva, Frank’s wife, Lymari Nadal moves from charmed infatuation to tired resignation, her beauty becoming a thing of terrible fragility.