At the Movies

Michael Wood

Ridley Scott is always a director to watch. This proposition includes watching for things to avoid, especially when he goes for history and costume, as in 1492 and The Kingdom of Heaven. But there were also The Duellists and Thelma and Louise; and Blade Runner, it seems, is always showing up in a new version. A ‘final cut’, following on the studio cut and the director’s cut, is just out. Still, that film was made in 1982, and Scott’s most successful works since then, on any terms, have been Gladiator (2000) and Black Hawk Down (2001). Until now, that is. It’s a pleasure to report that American Gangster is a stylish and intelligent contribution to the genre evoked by the title, a little overhaunted by past masterpieces and in the end perhaps dwarfed by them, but gripping and troubling all the way through.

The film is based on the ‘true story’ of Frank Lucas, a black gangster who reigned in Harlem from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, when he went to jail for 15 years – a sentence reduced from 70 years because he named the policemen he had been paying off. We know what ‘true story’ means in such instances: the basic facts are given but they are coloured and tilted by the rules of genre and the star system, which is to say by a shift into the realm of glamour and romance.

But Scott wants to have it both ways, to give us both grim facts and glamour. He certainly does this, at least until the end of the movie, when glamour wins out and even turns into a kind of cosiness. Before that, there are memorable, bleak scenes of black tenement dwellers dying of drug overdoses, of a mother unconscious while her child sits helplessly beside her on a stained mattress, of another addict sprawled in a shower, her feet on a dirty toilet: these are the clients of crime, so to speak, the price of the profit, the victims that most gangster films ignore, caught up as they are in the all too attractive notion that mobsters are too busy killing each other to do any real harm to other people.

But then Lucas is played by Denzel Washington, who cannot but bring steadiness and grace and decency to the role, and we have to see him as a man who has almost psychotically learned to concentrate on his trade and not its effects, on his family and no one else, and to permit himself even murder in the name of fidelity and straight dealing.

He has inherited a crime empire from his boss and mentor, Bumpy Johnson, who dies at the start of the film. Lucas was his driver, collector and hit man: in a shocking brief pre-credit sequence, still working for Johnson, he soaks a man in petrol and sets him alight, prior to shooting him several times. Later he abruptly kills a man on a Harlem street because of a late payment. ‘What are you going to do, shoot me in broad daylight?’ the man says, smiling. Lucas, not smiling, does just that and goes back into a diner to finish his breakfast.

He’s doing excellent business because he has decided to get his heroin directly from Thailand (he uses stooges in the American army as his shipping agency). It’s twice as good in quality as what’s on offer through other channels, and he sells it for half the price. He’s an American entrepreneur, and he’s cut out the middleman, as he repeatedly says. He’s not greedy, just rational; although he does get very rich and he is his own boss. What we have here is not a character made of contradictions and anguish, like Al Pacino in Godfather II, or of manic imaginings of perfect control, like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, but of all but impregnable denial.

Washington/Lucas just sees himself as a decent, honourable man, whatever he does. He’s nice to his mother and he marries a lovely Puerto Rican girl. There is one scene where he cracks up, beautifully placed to show how much of his mind and feelings he has closeted away, refused to inspect. At a party in his apartment one guest is sniffing coke, another is drunk, and another packs a gun and shoots a rival. The world he lives off and yet keeps at bay has invaded his home. Lucas goes berserk, and smashes the offender’s head inside the grand piano.

In fact, almost none of the men in his family, brothers and cousins brought from North Carolina, can keep their fingers out of the pies they are supposed to be selling, and they are Lucas’s downfall. His ideal is not austerity but abstinence from addiction, and the refusal of anything flashy. He is always impeccably but not loudly dressed. In a weak conjugal moment, he accepts a vast fur coat and superdude fur hat as a gift from his wife, which make him look like a stereotype from a quite different kind of movie, and is seen in this outfit in the front row at the Ali-Frazier fight. Since he has a better seat than the top Mafia man (played in a mode of outrageous self-parody by Armand Assante), and more important, since he is dressed like a gangster, the police know this otherwise invisible man must be up to something.

There is a parallel to Lucas’s life of denial, and this is the curious double-standard story of Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe. In a world where many cops are on the take, and others are at least keeping quiet about what they know, Roberts not only doesn’t steal, he returns to the authorities a haul of a million dollars he and his partner came across during an investigation. He is ostracised for this quixotic gesture and at the end of the movie Lucas tries to bribe him, asking if he would refuse the money a second time. Roberts just smiles, but we have learned meanwhile that he has complicated thoughts about what he did, not a sense of simple morality. When his wife, seeking a divorce and custody of their child, accuses him of fetishising his own honesty because he returned the money, while betraying her with other women and paying no attention to their son, he accepts the charge and gives up contesting the divorce. If Lucas can be an honourable man by forgetting half of what he does, so can Roberts. In both cases, this is presumably better than having no honour at all, and certainly makes for better movie-going, but there is still an invented self in action, a fantasy lived at some distance from the full range of reality.

This point is important because the movie is about both men, and cross-cuts swiftly and remorselessly between their stories – the millionaire Harlem gangster and the grubby New Jersey cop – from the beginning. The two men don’t meet in person until right at the end of the movie, when Roberts has managed to uncover one of Lucas’s operations, and brings him to trial. I thought for a moment they would just see each other in court and that would be it, but such abnegation is too much to expect of any director with two expensive stars on his hands. Remember Michael Mann’s thriller Heat, where Robert de Niro and Al Pacino get together for a totally inconsequential conversation just so we can see them together before they return to their posts on opposite sides of the law. The stars have to share serious screen time, even if the plot stagnates for a bit.

In American Gangster the plot doesn’t stagnate but it does go soft, and this is where Scott loses control of his balancing act, where the fantasy of self forgets about the social reality, and Denzel Washington escapes into pure charm. He grins like his old screen image, and the hard fierce face he has been displaying disappears completely. Crowe, similarly, whose character has now, through diligent hours at night school, become a lawyer, abandons all his anger about the drug trade and smiles in sheer admiration of Lucas’s resilience and ingenuity. We are told that Roberts, as a lawyer, became a defence attorney and represented . . . Frank Lucas. It was a buddy movie all along.

Part of what is happening here has to do with race and class politics. The stern black Lucas and the driven working-class Roberts are different from everyone else: the corrupt cops, the time-serving government officials, the doped-up soldiers, the Italian gangsters. They are different not because they are honest (in their way) but because they are scorned and they are rocking the boat. We are cheering for them, but the cheering does drown out quite a lot of other noises. ‘Viewers may ask,’ David Denby says in his very good review of this film in the New Yorker, ‘why it’s supposed to be better that hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in Harlem were destroyed by black gangsters rather than by Italians.’ And along the same lines we may suspect that a bit of male bonding is no real answer to the contradictions of capitalism.