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Catching Up, Part 1: American Gangster, Mr. Untouchable, and We Own the Night

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Catching Up, Part 1: <em>American Gangster</em>, <em>Mr. Untouchable</em>, and <em>We Own the Night</em>

The first in a series of columns about notable 2007 releases.

The key scene in American Gangster, and perhaps in star Denzel Washington’s career, is the bit where 1970s drug kingpin Frank Lucas, who has amassed a fortune smuggling Asian heroin inside the coffins of dead U.S. servicemen, crushes a disrespectful associate’s skull under the piano lid in the middle of packed party, then reams an underling for wiping the blood off Lucas’ luxurious alpaca rug. “Blot that motherfucker!” Lucas barks, daintily patting the stain. Like Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, Lucas hates delegating even when the job is janitorial; but unlike Swearengen, Lucas is uncomfortable with the moral and physical muck associated with the life he’s chosen. The entrepreneurial gambits, the killings, the brinksmanship are aspects to be endured—inconveniences on the road to wealth. With his immaculate suits, lordly demeanor and penchant for my-way-or-the-highway lectures, Lucas is gangster cinema’s first homicidal drudge—a combination of Scorsese’s yin-yang Casino heroes, fretful visionary Ace Rothstein and slimy enforcer Nicky Santoro, yet less unsettling than either. The blot-the-alpaca bit is like the scene in John Landis’ Trading Places where the newly-rich Eddie Murphy character frets when his neighborhood pals sully his new bachelor pad—yet it’s not as funny, and not nearly as horrifying as the context demands. It’s horrorshow shtick.

Gangster, a sprawling account of the real-life, black 1970s drug dealer’s attempt to build a heroin empire rivaling that of the Italian mob’s, seems an ordained match of star, director and subject. Man, I wish that were a compliment. For all his feral swagger, Washington always seems a tad diligent, logical and respectable; he tries to translate those qualities into scary anal-retentiveness—sort of a bloodlust for accountability—but it doesn’t quite happen. I enjoy Washington when he’s playing hounded exemplars of righteousness (Malcolm X, The Manchurian Candidate, Crimson Tide, Courage Under Fire) and human-scaled hustlers who are not as clever as they think (particularly in his two collaborations with Carl Franklin, Devil in a Blue Dress and Out of Time); these roles seem perfectly suited to his talent and energy. But I was unconvinced by his chest-thumping bombast and fidgety smoking in Training Day; there were funny, scary moments, but they were undercut by the feeling that I was watching a straight-“A” drama club favorite spritz himself with stage blood and play Macbeth. Yes, he won an Oscar. But was it for playing against type, or for merely deciding to play against type?

Gangster is more against-the-grain flamboyance: but it’s 157 minutes long and more full of itself than Training Day, and half its running time is eaten up by a competent but wearying parallel story of a cop named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). A detective notorious for finding a fat stash of drug money and turning it in, Roberts is professionally incorruptible but privately incorrigible. He builds a dream team of detectives to bring Lucas down while boozing and whoring, fighting his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) for custody of their child and rocking ’70s badass white guy fashions: wide-lapel shirts, feathered hair, guitar hero shades. (With his steak-and-potatoes torso, Crowe is prematurely edging into character actor country; in a workout scene, his medicine ball gut pushing against his tank top, could be Ray Winstone’s kid brother.) The Roberts story is outsider cops vs. crooks and crooked colleagues, with echoes of Sidney Lumet cop-corruption pictures and Burt Reynolds’ cheesy, soulful Sharky’s Machine. The Lucas story is an ebony gloss on every other gangster picture ever made, with dialogue that all but adominishes the audience, “You’ve seen it before—but not with a brother!” There are a few fresh splashes—the Saigon sequences opposite Lucas’ local contact, a corrupt Army officer played with sleazy panache by Roger Guenveur Smith; the brief, early scenes between Lucas and his mentor, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III; what a Lucas he would have made in his prime); Lucas doting on his beloved mama (Ruby Dee), who vacillates between pride in Frank’s daring, fear for his life and look-the-other-way acceptance of his largesse; the country mouse-becomes-city-mouse arc of Lucas and the North Carolina relatives he installs as his East Coast crew. (The latter subplot reminded me of the sections of Blues People where author Amiri Baraka analyzed how rural gutbucket blues moved up north and turned into polished jazz and soul.)

But Scott and his screenwriter, Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List), seem determined to snuff out bright patches before they can catch fire. And throughout, they counterbalance Lucas’ ruthless innovation with Roberts’ musty diligence, and avoid betraying a fully formed opinion on what they’re showing us. The movie periodically reminds us that Lucas’ drugs enslaved the same East Coast African-Americans that his Robin Hood-like cash infusions were supposed to liberate—but in the end, the turncoat truce worked out between the antagonists just makes it seem as though the filmmakers really do view Roberts, the good cop in a corrupt department, and Lucas, the maverick smack dealer shaking up an ossified criminal system, as sides of the same coin, even moral equals. This may satisfy the sorts of viewers who discuss the careers of gangsters the way other people discuss the careers of filmmakers or baseball players (as human repositories of trivia and statistics). But it’s half-assed drama. Heat sold the old cliche that cops and criminals understand each other because they’re both outlaw types, but it stopped short of telling us that one group was innately no better than the other. Revising the standard gangster film template, Gangster plays not like a street allegory of assimilation and capitalist ingenuity, but a business school case study whose subject happens to be a gangster. That’s a legitimate approach, I guess, but the end product plays like the tawdriest corporate motivational video of all time. The tone the movie takes toward Lucas’ social striving is cynical, too. Lucas is partly motivated by a desire to stand toe-to-toe with the Mafia even more defiantly than his mentor did—the tells Roberts that the Italians have been “bleeding Harlem dry since they got off the boat.” But Steven Zaillian’s script hits this point in such an incessant, pandering way that racial animus becomes up-by-your-bootstraps inspirational hokum.

Scott’s direction is efficient but uninspired, and in places, slightly hack-y. Shelving his preference for the wide frame, he shoots in the blockier 1:85 to 1 ratio, perhaps as an instant signifier of intimacy and “realism,” but the result makes me question how much of Scott’s mesmerizing style is bound up in ’Scope compositions, filters and film processing tricks. Gangster’s images lack those tells, and they seem drained of verve. Maybe the Madison Avenue pallate is to Scott’s visuals what the paper lampshade was to A Streetcar Named Desire heroine Blanche Dubois: a means of hiding plainness. If any Scott film needed a dash of visual glamor, it’s Gangster, a blockbuster that seems to have been conceived to pander to the built-in audience for gangster pictures, any gangster pictures. A prestige movie faking seedy toughness, Scott’s film mostly lacks the vicious ironic humor that distinguishes Scorsese’s gangster epics, which were so thick with acrobatic camera moves and “Didja know?” factoids that they pretty much created a new genre: the expressionist docudrama. Gangster is never more phony than when it’s aping Scorsese, as in the Alpaca exchange and in a similarly “audacious” setpiece in which Lucas interrupts a conference with his crew at a diner to walk down the street and shoot an enemy at point-blank range while surrounded by witnesses. Even if it really happened, the staging feels badass-phony. (Scorsese’s characters behave like savages because they are who they are; Scott’s behave that way because the director wants to hear the crowd exclaim, “Motherfucker’s crazy!”) The film’s bifurcated structure (right down to the ambitious work life/troubled home life dynamic) recalls Heat, but without Michael Mann’s Zen pulp delirium and his sense of karmic balance: emotional loss versus egocentric gain. The final image of Heat—cop and crook holding hands as a plane takes off overhead, hinting at the escape and evolution the crook sacrificed because he could not overcome his nature—has no emotional rival in Gangster. The last 20 minutes—which find Lucas and Roberts forging an alliance to punish their mutual enemies—are so flatly played that they make both men seem as though their hearts weren’t in their work.

Throughout American Gangster, Frank Lucas is shadowed by Harlem drug kingpin Nicky Barnes; as played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in pimpish finery, he’s a glorified wannabe, an established rival who’s theoretically as powerful as Frank but will never be as innovative or cool. He’s Chester the Terrier to Lucas’ Frank the Bulldog; when Lucas storms into Barnes’ club and intimidates him for copying his signature brand of heroin, Barnes stands his ground but looks like he’s a couple of insults away from peeing his pants. It’s startling to see Mr. Untouchable, Marc Levin’s biographical documentary about the real-life Barnes, hard on the heels of Gangster. In it, Barnes—who has been in witness protection since turning state’s witness in the ’80s, and is photographed via silhouettes and insert shots—describes the Newark-based Lucas and his crew as a bunch of ruthless bumpkins who “dressed country” and “acted country.” That throwaway line suggests the extent to which Gangster might have shaped the truth in order to flatter its star.

Granted, everyone shades their personal history to make themselves seem more in control than they really were, and career criminals in particular aren’t known for their self-deprecation. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that a man who amassed as much power as Barnes could be as comical, insecure and altogether second-rate as the character played by Gooding. There’s a pivotal scene in Gangster where Lucas, who believes that if you’re not wearing a proper suit you can’t be taken seriously, tries to please his young, adoring wife (Lymari Nadal) by wearing wear a pimp-looking fur coat and hat ensemble to the Ali-Frazier fight. Within the context of Scott’s movie, the outfit seems uncharacteristic; but within the context of Barnes’ rueful but tough recollection, it seems like what a country-boy-made-good might wear to a championship fight. It’s a given that if you split the difference between the two film’s depictions of their heroes, you might get closer to truth than you could get from watching either film individually; but if I had to pick one film that I thought better represented that time and place, I’d throw down with Mr. Untouchable. (Neither film, however, is as memorable as New York Magazine’s interview of Barnes and Lucas, “Lords of Dopetown.”)

Which isn’t to say that Levin’s film is any less calculating than Scott’s. Barnes’ underlings’ admissions that their boss was a self-serving, monomaniacal killer and that the drug business is a fearful, nasty trade are ultimately overshadowed by tales of Barnes’ awesome charisma, fearlessness and creativity. When Barnes tells how the mostly young women who counted money and filled smack bags were forced to work naked so they couldn’t steal anything (an image also showcased in Gangster), Levin cuts to fake “period” shots of mocha titties bobbing in close-up—an image that also occurs in Gangster—and throughout, the director is a bit too VH-1 with his music cues. (When a street war erupts, Levin cues Edwin Starr’s “War.”)

All in all, though, Untouchable is more honest in its assessment of why it exists, and why you’re sitting there watching it. The appeal of gangster stories is partly visceral and vicarious: we want to experience, for a couple of hours, what it might feel like to amass a fortune at the point of a gun, bed down with worshipful young admirers and kill anyone dumb enough not to awed by our scurvy cruelty. But there’s a second appeal intertwined with the first: the chance to see what it’s like to live in a world where ethics is completely divorced from morality. Barnes and Lucas—like Scorsese and David Chase’s gangsters—were amoral but ethical. They abided by the conventions of a vicious subculture that was attached to mainstream life but not really a part of it, like a tick riding on a dog’s back; their list of do’s and don’ts was written in Bizarro World, but it was fairly consistent through the ages, which is why brazen depatures from standard business practice—like Lucas’ scheme to import cheap heroin directly from Indochina and sell it at half the Mafia’s price—were such shocks to the underworld’s system. The world you know is the world you know, period. That’s what criminals mean when they talk about having a “code.” “If you turn on television at night and you see picture of a young person who was a suicide bomber, in your mind, it’s incomprehensible how someone could do that,” Barnes tells Levin. “But to those people inside the system of values, that’s totally acceptable.”

David Bordwell’s reaction to We Own the Night mirrors my own: “Further evidence that today’s cinema is classic studio cinema, with more sex, violence, drugs, and rock-and-roll.” Too bad. I was pumped for this movie ever since I heard about it, and not necessarily because I had the same faith in its writer-director, James Gray, as some of his boosters. Gray’s 1995 debut Little Odessa, starring Tim Roth as a Russian hitman who returns home to his Brighton Beach neighborhood and confronts the dysfunctional family that created him, was heartfelt, sometimes wrenching, but often seem a bit schematic, and the end result seemed to demand an empathy for the hero that Gray’s script didn’t earn. His follow-up, 2000’s The Yards, about an ex-con pulled into New York railyard corruption, was a quantum leap forward in style—the movie’s dark, sharp widescreen photography had a nightmarish clarity, and Gray’s direction was glossy and respectable but never dull. But the plot, mood and themes struck me as too obviously indebted to On the Waterfront; Mark Wahlberg’s conscience-stricken hero evoked the meaty decency of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy, but it was more a matter of how Wahlberg was photographed, and his position in the narrative, than anything the filmmaker or the actor brought to the table; likewise, as the film unreeled, sinking deeper into American Tragedy mode, I started to wonder if Gray wasn’t a video generation visionary whose filmmaking chops exceeded his dramatic instincts: an extraordinarily talented and obsessive mimic. The movie carried itself with a Godfather II-style self-importance that didn’t match up with its B-movie characterizations. Although their styles were (and still are) quite different, I had the same misgivings about Gray that I had about Paul Thomas Anderson prior to Punch-Drunk Love: he had not yet figured out how to transform his influences into something unique.

We Own the Night isn’t that, and I remain unconvinced by arguments that it’s a near-triumph (the most nuanced: Dan Callahan and Oggs Cruz.) This tale of a nightclub manager, Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix, who played the best friend/bad guy in The Yards), who’s torn between an adoptive family of Russian gangsters and the blood family of cops that wants him use him as an informer is consistently engrossing, and the action scenes (and the lead performances by Phoenix, Wahlberg as the hero’s super-achieving cop brother, Joseph, and Robert Duvall as his police chief father, Burt) are suitably intense. (I have to say, though, that while Wahlberg is convincing as a cop, he’s a tad dull. He’s almost always likable, but he doesn’t really have a star’s spark unless he’s playing brutes or dopey eccentrics.)

But too often I felt as though I was nodding off during a long night of channel surfing and briefly waking up to find that one old movie had blurred into another, then another. Night’s setting is 1988; the music is half ’80s jukebox, half urban tragedy orchestral score; the pallette is desaturated and the camerawork somewhat loose—at least by the standards of The Yards, which boasted stately compositions and a faux-Technicolor vibrancy that reminded me of Rebel Without a Cause. The Yards’ greatest scene was an extended fistfight between Wahlberg and Phoenix, much of it showcased in one unbroken, lateral, molasses-slow tracking shot that diminished the combatants against a streetscape whose gloomy yellows, blacks and browns might have been painted by Edward Hopper. Gray has learned to dance since then: from the smash-cut opening to Bobby finger-banging his girlfriend, Amada (Eva Mendes), on a couch in a back room of his club to the justly-heralded car chase-shootout in the rain—told mainly through Bobby’s eyes, the whole bloody mess scored to the ominous swip-swipe of of the hero’s windshield wipers—through the climactic manhunt sequence in a weed-choked field, Gray’s style melds Sidney Lumet’s easygoing grit and Scorsese’s visual dexterity.

The problem is the drama: there really isn’t any. Bobby’s Russian gangster colleagues and patrons are sketchily drawn compared to similar characters in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises; Bobby’s hyper-extended family of cops epitomizes honor, tradition and legacy without making them concrete; and throughout, we never really get to see Bobby grapple with the implications of the choices he’s asked to make. Gray’s script keeps pushing him from one situation to the next, one deception or tragedy to the next, so briskly it’s hard understand what it’s like to live in his skin, much less feel the psychic damage inflicted by offers he can’t refuse. The film’s chief virtue is its casual narrative audacity: it shifts from True Confessions to Serpico to The Godfather without settling into any one mode. Gray’s genre decathalon plotting staves off boredom; every 15 minutes there’s a shocking plot development that makes you wonder, “How can they keep going after this?” Yet the movie’s speed is its undoing. We Own the Night wants to bring the Coppola-Lumet-Scorsese urban corruption drama into the new century, but it’s more persuasive as a sincere but ludicrous cops-and-robbers action picture (the idea of the NYPD deputizing and arming an informant, cop relative or no, would be easier to accept if Gray’s direction didn’t genuflect toward grubby realism). In the end, I prefer the The Yards and Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way: hackneyed B-movies re-imagined as sensuous dreams.

Matt Zoller Seitz is Editor-in-Chief of The House Next Door.