American Gangster (18)

1.00

Heroin chic? Just say no

Ridley Scott's American Gangster offers both belated history-lesson and demented hero-worship, and seems to be intended as a kind of gift to black America. One hopes that black America will have nothing to do with it.

The history lesson concerns the epidemic of heroin addiction in late 1960s and early 1970s New York, partly a fallout from young American soldiers returning from the Vietnam War and the widespread availability of the drug through gangsterism. The hero worship is directed towards Frank Lucas, the real-life Harlem druglord who turned crime into big business and allegedly had the Mafia dancing to his tune.

You don't believe they could make Lucas a hero? Wait till you see Denzel Washington playing him: his aura of sanctity would be more appropriate on a Pentecostal minister, and his later claim to be a friend of Martin Luther King Jr only enhances it.

We first see him learning the ropes from his boss "Bumpy" Johnson, who laments just before a fatal heart-attack: "There's no one in charge." Frank decides to take charge, first by making a personal visit to the opium fields of Thailand, then organising secret shipment of the product via the US military planes bringing home bodybags from Vietnam.

Once he's made his fortune from turning Harlem into Junkie Central, he dresses like a Wall Street banker, gets a supermodel girlfriend and starts hymning the virtues of "honesty and integrity". What's startling here is the way the script (by Steven Zaillian) goes along with Lucas's own idea of himself – the small-time entrepreneur who became a model of corporate success.

The model Scott has in mind, of course, is the The Godfather, and he shows how Lucas even outdoes the Corleones in family loyalty, buying his Mom a huge country estate and installing his five brothers as lieutenants in his money-laundering operations.

The counterpoint to all this triumphalist criminality is the story of a New Jersey cop who really does know something about integrity. The first time we meet Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), he's just stumbled on a trunkload of drug money – a million dollars in unmarked bills – which, instead of pocketing as his partner advises, he turns in at the station and makes himself an instant pariah. A cop that honest is dangerous to be around. If one half of the movie nods to The Godfather, the other half winks to the incorruptible spirit of Serpico, with a pinch of The French Connection thrown in to juice up the energy levels.

While the gangster epics and police thrillers of early Seventies cinema are being cannibalised, it leaves you to wonder: what has Scott brought to the party that we mightn't have seen before? The answer, I'm afraid, is nowt. All the characterisation is second-hand: the cop-hero so obsessed by the job that he neglects his family; the gangster who's a charmer with a ferocious streak; the grungy Seventies details of Vietnam on the TV; the masked drones weighing out the cocaine wraps; Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" on the soundtrack.

The wide-lapelled jackets and Gatsby caps look so familiar that they seem to have come from some Superfly Museum, the twist being that Frank personally avoids such threads in favour of his expensive but inconspicuous tailoring. The one time he breaks with this rule and wears an absurd chinchilla coat and hat to an Ali prize-fight he fatefully attracts the attention of the cops.

One of them, a narcotics officer on the take, is played by Josh Brolin with greased-back hair and a huge black moustache (another steal, this time from Nick Nolte in Sidney Lumet's Q&A). Brolin, we come to realise, is not so much a human being as a sleazeball monster created to make Frank Lucas seem a nice guy. So even when Lucas shoots dead a drugs rival at point-blank range, in broad daylight, it's made to look like the act of an ice-cold superman whose decisiveness is a badge of honour.

Scott isn't interested in exploring ambiguities in this character; he just sees Lucas as an avatar of tactical nous and enterprise. Or, as the press notes have it: "Had he not been pushing an illegal, deadly substance new to this country, Lucas would have assuredly been celebrated as one of the keenest businessmen of the decade, if not the century."

Right. And had it not been for the genocide and the appetite for total war, Hitler would "assuredly" have been celebrated as one of the shrewdest statesmen of the century.

The unacceptably fatuous idea driving American Gangster is that Frank Lucas was a cut above your ordinary crimelord by dint of being black. It's a rags-to-riches story that almost tries to bypass the inconvenient fact that its hero was indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands, probably tens of thousands. Almost. Richie Roberts finally makes this sobering point to Lucas at the end, but instead of showing a glimmer of remorse for what he's done the convicted gangster gets to dish the dirt on all the corrupt cops he dealt with on his way to the top – it's the Brolin defence, multiplied.

There's a cringeworthy shot of Washington, with his thousand-watt smile, standing in front of a photoboard explaining to Roberts and his team precisely who's who in the Harlem snakepit. So he plays the hero a second time merely by being a turncoat.

Don't let anyone try to tell you that this ranks with The Godfather, or GoodFellas. Those movies showed us the exhilaration, the brutality, occasionally the humour, of men who are a law unto themselves, but they were always shadowed by an awareness of the moral corrosion within. This repulsively stupid and self-important movie doesn't begin to understand the nature of its subject.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering