Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Monday, November 26, 2007

American Gangster

Ridley Scott, the man behind 'Alien' and 'Blade Runner', gives us a new take on an old stalwart, the gangster movie, with 'American Gangster'. A true story, it deals with the rise and fall of a Harlem gangster, Frank Lucas, who dominated the heroin trade in 70s New York.
The word is already on the street; this is a very fine movie. It walks a very fine line on racial issues - black power politics are always bubbling under the surface - and just about gets away with it. Scripted by Steven Zaillian, a Hollywood heavyweight (Schindler's List), it's one of his best works to date. However, it can only work by making a cold-blooded killer like Frank Lucas into a hero.
Much has already been made of the professionalism and work ethic espoused by Lucas, and the case for his hero status is strengthened immeasurably by a cool performance by Denzel Washington. With many a close-up of Washington staring menacingly, and his constant lectures on the right way to conduct business, we are always clear about the managerial cut to Lucas's suit. The ending (which I won't reveal) solidifies Lucas's 'admirable' status. The thing is that when Lucas's mother says his brothers would follow him in anything he did, she is talking about Washington's audience too.
And that bothers me.
Lucas never repents. He is a ruthless professional gangster until the end and though his nemesis, Russell Crowe's cop, is set up as the more acceptable alternative, we can never forget Lucas's achievement in an Italian-dominated industry. Fall or not, his is a success story!
Though Lucas is a monster, midway through we realise that the real villains of this movie are the corrupt cops who allow his business to thrive. This may be true; corrupt cops are villains. But this emphasis allows us to conveniently sidestep Lucas's evil and fall into Washington's charisma. It is sleight of hand, and successful sleight of hand, but it's still a cheat. And with my prudish old nightcap on me once more, I worry at the role models Hollywood now throws our way.
Otherwise I can't fault the movie. If it is not of 'The Godfather' status, it is certainly an equal of other class acts such as 'Carlito's Way' or 'Heat'. It is also a very fine achievement for Scott who is in his 70s. Unlike 'American Gangster', he's certainly not set there.

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