American Gangster (18)

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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.

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