American Gangster

Monday, July 14, 2008

On the brink of death an aged gangster bemoans the state of America. He sees that corporations are taking over and that the little man is being cut out. ‘Where’s the pride of ownership?’ he wails. Damn soulless, faceless McDonald’s are everywhere.

This might seem like quite an honourable concern. It sounds like the old man is grieving over the homogenisation of the modern world. But in reality the old man is only upset because it’s nearly impossible to shake down large corporations. Shop owners are meant to be vulnerable and powerless. They’re meant to pay him a cut of their earnings. But multinationals are far more powerful than the old man will ever be. It’s impossible for him to get a piece of the action.

When the old man dies, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) decides to take over his operations. But while the old man had reached the limit of his ingenuity and had become a relic, Frank sees where the business has to go. He has to become like the large corporations. He can’t just sell random junk. That would earn him peanuts. Instead he decides to create a brand.

The heroin that Frank sells is called Blue Magic. It’s purer than anything that’s on the streets and it’s cheaper too. And Frank can do this because he cuts out the middleman. He’s both supplier and distributor. He’s taken a leaf out of the corporation’s book.

Another way that Frank is like the corporations is that he’s highly protective of his brand. One drug dealer takes Blue Magic and cuts it up in order to try and make more money. But this reflects badly on the brand. It’s no longer Blue Magic. It’s shit. Frank even says that his customers have a guarantee of quality when they buy his product. It’s like he’s talking about coffee rather than heroin.

What’s notable is that like a good businessman, Frank does his best to stay as anonymous as possible. Occasionally he has to lay down the law and make a scene to get everyone in line, but otherwise he doesn’t want to draw undue attention to himself. He just wants to blend in. However, he does have a moment of weakness. His wife buys him an expensive fur coat and hat. In a second he goes from anonymous-looking businessman to black gangster. And wearing this outlandish outfit to a boxing match, and getting the best seats in the house, he alerts himself to the cops – previously he flew under the radar. Suddenly he has the attention of both Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and some bent cops led by Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin). And then on his wedding day, Trupo tries to shake down Frank for money. Frank’s indulgence has cost him. It’s exposed him and made him vulnerable. Therefore he burns the hat and coat while his bride sobs.

All of these details and all of these parallels between gangsters and corporations make American Gangster an interesting film, but it never really takes flight. In fact, visually it’s surprisingly bland for a Ridley Scott film. He captures the grime and squalor of 70s Harlem well enough, but with his usual widescreen frame jettisoned, it feels more like television. The film is solid but unspectacular.

Of course, that’s probably intentional. The film doesn’t want to showboat. It wants to be a more gritty, realistic depiction of the drug trade. It doesn’t want to have the glamour of The Godfather or Goodfellas. But this is still cinema and there’s nothing that’s really going to take your breath away.

Instead the film’s pleasures are smaller. There’s a nice scene where the wealthy Lucas family are sitting down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal and thanking god for all they have while junkies shoot up – we even see a child crying over a parent who has overdosed. This is the product that Frank pedals: misery. He makes himself fat off other people’s weakness and stupidity.

But although this criticism is well made, you do occasionally feel that the film makes the mistake of liking Frank Lucas a little too much. Even though Scorsese’s gangster films are more cinematic and therefore more seductive, Scorsese always stays objective – he knows these people are scum; therefore he just turns on the camera and lets them hang themselves. Scott, though, seems a little seduced. At the end, as Lucas cooperates with Richie, we see him laughing and smiling. Is the film trying to show us that deep down he’s a decent guy? And there’s also a heavy focus on police corruption in the film. Don’t get me wrong. Corrupt police are just as bad as criminals such as Lucas. But you kind of get the feeling that the film is saying they’re worse. Fact is, they’re the same. The film shows that they all feed off one another. But although we get that one moment where we see junkies shooting up during Thanksgiving, the film soft pedals the misery Frank brought to the streets. He was a shitbag and instead he’s made to look like a ruthless businessman who really had a decent heart underneath it all.

Another weakness is the familiarity of Richie’s story – the cop who catches Lucas. His character has all the familiar beats – a failed marriage, a desire to be the one straight cop in the bad town, and the struggle to crack the ring. None of his scenes are bad, but you’re constantly reminded of better movies such as The French Connection. And that’s the problem with the whole film. As you watch it you’re constantly reminded of better movies. The Godfather, Goodfellas and The French Connection all pop in your head and you realise that American Gangster can’t hold a candle to any of them.

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  1. Spot on - i felt exactly the same way. It had a few moments of greatness, the junkies vs thanksgiving scene u mention plus i also liked the "you gotta blot that shit, don't scrub" scene getting the blood out of the rug, but as a whole i was also constantly reminded of how much better Scorcese does it. Great review, as always, keep up the good work!

  2. Yeah, the rug scene was one of the best scenes in the film. It's one of the few moments where you feel like you really get to know the character - that he's so overwhelmingly shallow and uncaring about anyone else that all he gives a shit about is his precious rug. More of that sort of stuff would have gone a long way.