Gangster flick saved by mob
HOLLYWOOD ’ S fascination with the crime movie never diminishes. All four of the American films in competition in Cannes last year dealt with crime of one sort of another: No Country for Old Men, Death Proof , We Own the Night and Zodiac .
The impression given was that the best American films of the era were single- mindedly exploring the gloomy world of serial killers or gangsters. No other country, surely, has made as many crime films. It ’s true that there have been fine French, Swedish, Korean and British gangster films, but the US has reigned supreme in the genre since D. W. Griffith ’ s The Musketeers of Pig Alley in 1912.
Gangster films came into their own in the early days of sound, when the roar of the machinegun and the rattle of speeding cars thrilled audiences who were fascinated and repelled by the mobsters, played by Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar , James Cagney in The Public Enemy and Paul Muni in Scarface .
Australian film has rarely tackled the genre. You have to look to television for probably the best depiction of the criminal underworld ( Blue Murder ), and the occasional feature film ( Money Movers , Two Hands and Dirty Deeds ) to enter the world of the criminal does so with a larrikin approach that undercuts the horror.
When director Geoffrey Wright made a film inspired by the gang warfare that shocked Melbourne in recent years ( what a subject for a thriller!) he diluted it by relocating it, none too
Macbeth . Australians seem successfully, into uncomfortable with the gangster movie.
British director Ridley Scott ’s new film, American Gangster , is firmly in the tradition of the best crime movies. As with those classics of the early 1930s, it charts the rise and fall of a
National release on January 10
gangster and, similar to more recent films such as Martin Scorsese ’ s The Departed , it explores two worlds: the world of the criminals and that of the law enforcement agents determined to bring those criminals to justice.
The early films were inspired by real characters: back in 1932, everyone knew that the ruthless gangster Tony Camonte, played by Muni, was supposed to be Al Capone, and it was implicitly understood that you couldn ’t say so. No such qualms exist today. Denzel Washington’s American gangster is called Frank Lucas, who was the first African- American to make a serious bid to control the New York heroin trade. This was in the early 70s, and the film begins
’ in 1968. It was when another great gangster
The Godfather , movie, Francis Ford Coppola ’ s reinforced the idea that the mafia ( although never mentioned by name) controlled crime in the US. Yet this was precisely the moment that Lucas began to rise to power from humble beginnings, as a driver for a mid- level gangster to a drug lord who succeeded in making even the Italians back down.
The secret of his success was that he took advantage of the Vietnam War to smuggle ultrapure heroin into the US from Southeast Asia using couriers who were serving in the armed forces. He even concealed drugs in the coffins of dead soldiers being shipped home from that miserable conflict.
He cut out the middle men, employing his brothers, who went to New Jersey from North Carolina to work as his loyal lieutenants.
In just one of the many elements of the film that suggest a good deal of research has gone into Steven Zaillian ’ s screenplay ( based on an article, The Return of Superfly ’’ by Mark
‘‘ Jacobson, published in New York magazine) we see that the foot soldiers in this war, the ( mostly) women who assemble the drugs into consumersize packages, are forced to work naked so that there ’s no risk they ’ ll steal the merchandise.
Lucas is presented as a conflicted character. He dresses in conservative suits, courts and marries Miss Puerto Rico 1970 ( Lymari Nadal), and installs his elderly mother ( Ruby Dee) in a comfortable home. He ’ s soft- spoken and slow to anger, but he doesn ’ t hesitate in taking part in a series of cold- blooded killings.
Washington ’s rich, uncomfortably honest portrayal of Lucas would be almost enough for one film, but Scott has matched him with his favourite actor, Russell Crowe, who plays Richie Roberts, a New Jersey cop who dedicates his life to bringing Lucas to justice.
It ’s sadly fashionable among some members of the media in this country to belittle the achievements of Crowe ( and other Australian actors). Suffice to say that as the rumpled, perspiring, working- class Roberts, whose private life is a mess and who is mistrusted by many of his fellow cops because he ’s too honest, Crowe gives one of his best screen performances.
Lucas isn ’ t the only antagonist Roberts has to face: New York cop Trupo ( Josh Brolin) is almost as hostile towards the New Jersey crusader ( ‘‘ Cops kill cops they can ’ t trust ’’ ). And the most powerful Italian around, Dominic Cattano ( Armand Assante), has to be confronted, as well as a competitor from Harlem, played by Cuba Gooding Jr.
All of this makes for an exceedingly rich film and Scott has directed it with his usual style and grace. The only drawback is that the basic story is such a familiar one. Not this particular story, it’ s true, but we ’ ve seen stories about powerful gangsters and the brave, selfless police officers who risked their careers to bring them down many times before. Luckily Scott, Washington, Crowe and an immensely talented supporting cast ensure that this rich, at times complex, saga is gripping enough to keep us involved despite a two- hour- plus running time.
We ’ ve got your back:
Russell Crowe gives a fine performance as a detective hunting a drug lord in New York in the 1970s while under fire from crooked fellow police officers
Brothers in arms:
Denzel Washington as drug kingpin Frank Lucas lays down the law to his associates