It seems that the history of American organised crime in the 20th Century still hasn’t been completely mapped by the movies – and this is slightly too concerned with playing as a sequel/alternative to a whole raft of movies.
We meet Frank Lucas (Denzel Washinton), the main crook, in the late 1960s, just as his Harlem gangland mentor Bumpy Johnson (who had a biopic of his own in Hoodlum) gives up the ghost and dies – and it’s established that the diluted-to-nothing heroin coming onto the streets of New York at the time is the stash confiscated at the end of The French Connection, which is being sold to the mob by crooked drugs cops led by Trupo (Josh Brolin, presumably trying to look like a younger version of Nick Nolte in Q&A). Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), Frank’s eventual nemesis, becomes hugely unpopular in his own department for handing in a fortune in unmarked bills he comes across on a routine search – implicitly rebuking the general corruption a la Serpico, even as Crowe’s aggressive performance echoes his work in L.A. Confidential. Of course, the epic rise-and-fall drugs racket evokes not only GoodFellas, Scarface and The King of New York but any number of street-level quickies, from New Jack City through Black Caesar to Blow. Plus director Ridley Scott and writer Steven Zaillian have been watching The Wire, and draw a few faces from the cast along with some structural licks and montages that make dullish cop work exciting and suspenseful.
Given that Scott is never the subtlest of directors – a montage of Frank living luxuriously and having a good time segues into shots of dead junkies to remind us where his cash comes from – there’s a risk that the film will congeal into formula. That this isn’t the case is down to the inherent fascination of the material, a strong cast who flesh out sometimes vestigial characters (third-billed Cuba Gooding Jr has almost nothing to do, suggesting there’s another longer cut out there) and Scott’s genuine knack for making cliches exciting all over again (which only deserts him in regulation scenes in which cop and crook have marriage troubles). From one point of view, this could have been called American Success Story, since it’s almost the heroic tale of the way Frank sees a market (junkies) exploited poorly by lazy, privileged white crooks (Armand Assante is the effete mafia boss) and comes up with daring, inventive solutions (making a connection in Vietnam and using dead soldiers’ coffins to smuggle the horse into the States) which mean he can put a superior product onto the market at a lower price and build his own, black-owned crime empire. He even gets away with it for so long because white idiots in law enforcement can’t believe he’s his own boss, and Washington – who slightly overdoes the innate dignity bit here as a character who’s not only a murdering bastard but, in the end, a stoolie – is given a redemption as he gets out of a long sentence by giving evidence which enables Richie (who goes from cop to lawyer) to prosecute all the crooked police in the city.
Frank criticises his relations and lieutenants if they dress like blaxploitation pimps, learning early that showing up for ringside seats at an Ali fight wearing a $50,000 chinchilla just attracts the wrong kind of attention – but he also goes the usual route of putting his little old mama (Ruby Dee, inevitably) in a mansion (she’s not as saintly as most screen gangster mamas) and gaining a trophy wife (Lymari Nadal as ‘Miss Puerto Rico’). Scott pillages the Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet playbooks throughout, mixing social history with ultra-violence and excessive consumerism at every level (and the expected ‘greatest hits’ soundtrack package); in a way it’s a disappointment that, after reinvigorating film forms from science fiction through historical epic to road movie with his own style, Scott should rely so heavily on other directors’ visions here.