More than any other director Ridley Scott has defined the alien Other. A quick look at his oeuvre confirms a fascination with putting a human face on threats to the status quo. Blade Runner is the ur-text. Deckard hunts down Replicant slaves for simply being. Black Rain, another 80s urban noir deals with the Japanese economic threat. Thelma & Loise looks at destructive feminism. Kingdom of Heaven‘s extended cut delves much deeper into the war between Muslims and Christians. Though it may look like an Army recruitment ad Black Hawk Down‘s depiction of gunning down Somali slums disturbs for its Counter-Strike-like detachment. And of course, Alien.
Er, not exactly sure how A Good Year fits in the scheme.
His latest, American Gangster, takes aim at black gangster/entrepreneur Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who pulled together a drug empire in Harlem using an impressive array of know-how passed onto him by his late gangster mentor “Bumpy” Johnson, played in flashbacks with lasting aplomb by Clarence Williams III (the wacko storyteller from Tales From The Hood). Using Bumpy’s wisdom – mainly: be smart, stay hidden – Lucas butts heads (shoots them, too) with the flashier crime lords of the neighborhood and beats them all at the drug game thanks to his U.S. military connection in South East Asia. With easy access to a Bangkok village brewing pure heroin Lucas sells to the entire tri-state area, gaining the attention of honest Newark police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).
What follows is a very long tale about family, business, corruption, honor, faith and (maybe) redemption. It’s epic. I’m a fan of cop/crime/cat-and-mouse stories so the three hour extended version (Ridley Scott is also king of the director’s cut) of American Gangster gripped me. The rich story is based on a true story and that’s very much how it feels – a long history of two men and their lives. If all that sounds like There Will Be Blood, the comparison is fair. Frank Lucas shares Daniel Plainview’s ambition yet accomplishes much more evil than Plainview ever could … arguably. Lucas murders, puts his own family in danger, is quick to temper and, of course, poisons the entire country with dope. You could say the poison in TWBB is oil, or not – it’s all part of business, part of the the American dream. It’s obvious Lucas runs on some twisted moral code yet it’s never clear by the end he regrets anything he’s done. It’s ambiguous what drives him. Did he really do it all for his family, for that big mansion? Or was it just to prove he can make a bigger splash than Bumpy, the Italians, or anyone else?
Roberts is the same way. If Lucas embodies greed, Roberts is pride – though that’s iffy. He really is a good cop, he just preaches honesty and old-fashioned policework (“The police catch the bad guys.”), rubbing it in the face of the cops who have no problem taking graft. Roberts is hardly squeaky clean though. He sleeps around, squalors in child custody court and appears uncouth. He’s working class. He lacks everything Lucas has but shares the same drive – to catch Lucas. It’s perfectly fitting the way the two end up in the exact same place at the very end, only Lucas himself is addled by an “Other” – the new breed of American gangsta.
The two turn in great, understated performances, making characters that could’ve been cliche seem fresh again. The supporting cast is a parade of great character actors. To help nab Lucas Roberts handpicks his own team including John Hawkes (Deadwood, Miami Vice 2006) and RZA, sporting an extremely anachronistic Wutang tattoo. Ted Levine is, of course, a cop and Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Lucas’ right-hand brother, and Cuba Gooding Jr. appears unrecognizable as rival gangster Nicky Barnes. Josh Brolin douches it up as a one-note cop. Jon Polito also shows up.
I’m not sure if American Gangster belongs up there with the Godfathers and Goodfellas but it’s definitely one of last year’s best.
Tags: American Gangster