“I’m not trying to glorify what he did,” says a street dealer while discussing 1970s NYC heroin kingpin Leroy “Nicky” Barnes in Mr. Untouchable. It’s a falsehood that also epitomizes this documentary by Marc Levin, who may avoid outright idol-worship, but any restraint exhibited by his film is disingenuous, since its preference for gangster tall tales over law enforcement realities—as well as its goofily staged interviews with Barnes himself—reveals an uninhibited, fawning fascination with the infamous criminal. Barnes, now in his 70s and in the witness protection program, talks about his life in the “business” while cloaked in shadow and sitting behind a conference room table, with Levin avoiding direct close-ups in favor of tight shots of the man’s hands (gold Rolex on his wrist) caressing bullets and piles of cash. Style demerits aside, Barnes was clearly a bad man, and for a time impossible to convict, and Mr. Untouchable is best when exploring his brazenness—epitomized by his decision to pose for a 1977 New York Times Magazine cover story—and the way in which his experiences as a drug addict helped him fashion such a savvy, efficient operation. Unfortunately, since Levin has nothing particularly novel to say about Barnes’s rise to power and eventual decision to double-cross 70 to 80 of his closest associates (and two-timing wife) by squealing to the feds after being sentenced to life in prison, his latest nonfiction work never rises above an exploitative puff piece aimed at giving ruthless killers the opportunity to reminisce about the good ol’ days. To be fair, attempts to challenge Barnes about his charitable community work, which was invariably offset by his local sales of heroin, are predictably evaded by the “Black Godfather,” who sees no irony in his governing council’s mantra “Treat My Brother As I Treat Myself.” But the failure of Mr. Untouchable is that it doesn’t push and prod its subject enough. Uncritically allowing Barnes to equate himself to Ahab, spout quotes from Machiavelli (which also appear via indulgent title cards), and recount anecdotes about angel dust orgasms, the film proves merely a mouthpiece for the man’s narcissism—as well as winds up seeming like Barnes’s preemptive, egotistical counter to Ridley Scott’s forthcoming deification of rival Frank Lucas, American Gangster.
- Magnolia Pictures
- 92 min
- Marc Levin
- Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, Thelma Grant, Joseph "Hazz" Hayden, Jackie Hayden, Leon "Scrap" Batts, Carol Hawkins, Frank James, David Breitbart, Don Ferrarone, Louie Diaz
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