Gang­ster flick saved by mob

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

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

Amer­i­can Gang­ster

( MA15+)

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

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