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American Gangster Cinema:
From 'Little Caesar' to 'Pulp Fiction'
by Fran Mason
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
A classic and potentially powerful structure in storytelling is to pit two powerful figures against one another. Most interesting in the form of it used here is that the two men aren't aware of each other for most of the drama. When they finally lay eyes on each other for the first time, their fates are sealed.
Further, if there is a director alive who gets all the character and action out of a story, it's Ridley Scott ("Gladiator"). With screenwriter Steven Zaillian's movie expansion of Mark Jacobson's article, "The Return of Superfly," he turns in a movie almost guaranteed a wide audience everywhere and, possibly, Academy contention. Which is not to say it's perfect in all respects.
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) can be as brutal as any mob killer. Starting out as collector and personal driver for Harlem drug kingpin Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams) who, as role model for his protege', couldn't be a better influence -- if you put legalities aside. He instills in his ward Frankie the notion of being sensitive to the neighborhood you're operating in and being generous with the officials you need for control.
When Bumpy dies it's for Frank to carve out his own operation with the benefits of Bumpy's tutorship and, the first thing he looks at is the chain of middlemen involved in bringing heroin onto the streets. He wants it pure, both from the standpoint of not having it "cut" and in dealing directly with his supplier. His business mind, coupled with toughness, courage, smarts and the behavioral understanding of a good psychologist, he dopes out a sure fire method to transport his product and visits a supplier at a Thailand poppy farm for the supply.
With that in place, he's in a position to distribute powder that's 100% pure and at half the prevailing rate. Bill Gates never had it so good, nor with a fraction of the charisma.
While all this is being set up, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a detective with the Jersey PD, is making a different kind of name for himself. On the purely personal side, he's studying for a law degree and dealing with his wife Laurie's (Carla Gugino) unwaverable intention to divorce him and take their boy away with her to Las Vegas for a new life. But, on the reputation side of his work, he's held by his peers in a mixture of disbelief, respect and disdain for having turned in nearly a million unmarked dollars in a drug bust. And this, while three quarters of the department is on the take!
Maintaining an unheard of discipline by never using and keeping a careful distance from his street vendors, Frank is growing rich and staying safe. He solidifies his niche in the drug community while putting on the respectable image and lifestyle of a law abiding citizen. When he needs to have contact with his troops, he gives us a view of the "processing room" in the tenements where naked women do the work of sifting and bagging new shipments on a production line. They are naked to prevent taking samples home and we're given a peek at some frontal nudity.
Soon, the business is expanding so much he has to import his family from North Carolina so as to have the necessary employees whom he can trust. Chief among them is cousin Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who takes quickly to the druglord lifestyle until his tendency to the flamboyant is brought down a notch by the always tasteful Frank. This gives him the freedom to meet and marry Miss Puerto Rico of 1970 (Lymari Nadal); deal with a high class Italian rival Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) who wants a piece of Frank's action; and deal with the inevitable associate who cuts the product to increase his profits. His biggest problem, however, is in the person of Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin, "No Country For Old Men") who keeps trying to find an angle to either get cut in or bring Frank down.
But, there's already a detective in charge of tracking down the source of this high-grade, wholesale-priced heroin. Richie has put together a small and determined team of men who haven't been corrupted by the drug or the payoffs.
All of which is aimed, in a very classy style of cat and mouse, at the eventual meeting between the cleverly, almost perfectly masked-from-the-law perp and his unknown and persistent pursuer. It takes a while, and the details get a bit more repetitive than the story (and a sagging back) can support, but this confrontation between two male geniuses of cinema is the payoff for the cost of our theatre seats. It's a sight to behold, with dialogue that is a model of characterization.
Some have observed that this glamorized portrayal of an evil, attractive anti-hero may badly influence the young generation, and I couldn't quarrel with that concern, so powerful is Washington's performance and charismatic presence. The notion is further abetted by the familiar prevalence of corrupt cops. On the other hand, the portrayal is inimical to the content of this movie and has to be considered along with Crowe's equally muscular representation of a cop whose dedication to justice is tenacious.
Composer Marc Streitenfeld's score serves up some impressive beats and a good share of originality.
As great as everyone involved with this production is, which is indisputable I think, the major weakness of it from a conceptual perspective is that it's yet one more gangster movie. A good one, for sure. A treat for the senses and for lovers of all cinema crafts, but compromised by the derivative factor. Its predecessors would make for a very long list of films that have burned their place into the celulloid of legend.
Still, the casting earns it the green signal light.
~~ Jules Brenner