Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007) is, for all intents and purposes, Oscar bait. It's the kind of two-hour plus epic studios like to parade in the multiplexes just before the horse races (the New York Film Critics; the L.A. Film Critics; the Golden whatsis; the Oscars), in the hopes of garnering a statue or two (no such luck; the Academy Award nominees have just been announced, the picture save for a few minor categories largely ignored).
The movie was inspired by "The Return of Superfly," a New York Magazine article written by Mark Jacobson about Frank Lucas, a true-life heroin entrepreneur turned police informant. Lucas rose from the ranks of Ellsworth 'Bumpy' Johnson's Harlem gang (briefly but memorably played here by Clarence Williams III) as driver and enforcer; when Johnson dies of a heart attack, Lucas takes over.
Perhaps the most interesting portion of the movie's story takes place after Lucas inherits Johnson's gang. Studying the situation, Lucas realized that he would never get ahead if he relied on Mafia distributors for his heroin, so he went straight to the source--to Southeast Asia's 'Golden Triangle'--and bought directly from the suppliers. He devised an ingenious way of smuggling them in (to quote from Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz: "Alimentary, my dear Leiter…"), and sold them on the streets of Harlem as 'Blue Magic,' 98 percent pure heroin--so pure they sometimes caused dope addicts (used to inferior powder) to overdose.
It's a fascinating parody of American capitalism--cut out the middleman, be innovative, sell a quality product--or is it a parody? I can think of a few billionaires--Bill Gates comes to mind--who adhere to less lofty standards (Microsoft Windows, anyone?). Problem is, Scott wants it to be more than that, wants a big screen biopic that will include all the usual moments in a drug lord's life and still come out strong for the American war on drugs. What the material needs is a filmmaker with a sense of irony (a rare and precious commodity in Hollywood, when you stop to think about it); maybe the more mature Spike Lee we saw in Inside Man (2006) and 25th Hour (2002), or a less frenetic Martin Scorsese working on a sharply focused script, or even a still-breathing Robert Altman (go ahead, wish for the moon). Lucas' life is a--or should be--a black comedy about achieving success in the illegal drug industry, emphasis on the word 'industry;' instead we get The Godfather (1974) without the strong family dynamics or sense of rooted identity.
As Denzel Washington plays him, Lucas is basically an African-American Michael Corleone; he's suave and restrained, capable of the occasional (and unconvincing) burst of violence; about the deepest subtext one senses in his performance is a hunger to at least be nominated for yet another golden doorstop (as noted, no such luck). Jacobson's article (and Jacobson's October 2007 interview of the man talking with fellow gangster Nicky Barnes (played in the movie with lively gusto by Cuba Gooding, Jr.)) reveals a more expansive, forceful personality, one skillfully able to present himself as a hardworking businessman with a bent but nevertheless still working set of principles. Jacobson's Lucas is a bullshit artist extraordinaire, part candor ("It’s not something Frank (Barnes) or I would tell any of our children to get into"), part glamorizing spin ("A drug dealer gonna live to his word. I’m not talking about a junkie. I’m talking about a man like Frank Lucas or Nicky Barnes"). Lucas at the age of 77 and confined to a wheelchair shows more life, energy and outsized humor than Washington ever does in the entire picture; Gooding on the other hand captures enough of Barnes' style to make an impression onscreen, but throws the picture off-balance--generally not a good thing when the supporting performer out-acts the lead.
For this film director Scott eschews his trademark burnt-orange, dustmote-drenched lighting in favor of the kind of bright 'n gritty '70s-style cinematography pioneered by Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. But the expert reproduction of a long-ago look is disastrously employed, to photograph needles plunging into scarred arms, babies crying helplessly beside their dead, overdosed parents--images that would seem heavy-handed in an anti-drug TV commercial, much less this movie. When the picture goes into action, it's standard-issue handheld footage, cut chop-suey style for extra oomph; Scott's been making films for--what, thirty years?--and he still doesn't seem to know the first thing about shooting a coherent action sequence. He does best staging elaborate shots that last minutes at a time, allowing you to drink in all the period detail and atmosphere and production design, only this time the period is New York in the 70s, possibly the one era Scott hasn't a clue how to evoke properly.
The movie suffers even more when put against the near-miraculous achievement of James Gray's We Own the Night (2007) which came out around the same time, set in the same period (actually the '80s--but with many of the detritus and accoutrements of the previous decade). Gray has more than filmmaking talent, he has a distinct sensibility, one that likes to take a step back and apprehend its characters--usually standing against a door frame or striding down a hallway--while they introduce themselves to us with tiny gestures or brief but revealing expressions. His handheld footage needs no apologies--when during a surprise ambush he gives us Joaquin Phoenix's panicked appraisal of the dashboard and windshield of the car he's driving (plus glimpses of the pair of cars (one of them driven by his father, the other by hired assassins) racing beside him), he's showing us a world suddenly spun out of control, showing us chaos in full bloom, and Phoenix's utter helplessness in the face of it. It's amazing, really, how a great film like We Own the Night can be completely ignored in this year's horse races, while something like American Gangster is able to pick up a few Guild awards, some technical Oscars, even a few Golden Globes (nominations, all). Well, maybe not so amazing--it's Hollywood, after all, the land that's been refracted through the looking-glass so many times you're not sure what direction is what, or what constitutes reality, anymore.
(First published in Businessworld, 1/25/08)