Wednesday, October 01, 2008

American Gangster

(Movie Review)

I’m always a sucker for a biopic, so when I saw this in the rental store, I decided to give it a whirl.

It’s based on a true story, as all biopics are. And, according to the DVD commentary, it sounds like this film made an effort to be as accurate as they could be.

The problem is that, true story or not, sometimes all of these Hollywood gangster movies start to feel the same. As I watched the rise and fall of another drug lord, it started to feel like I had seen this all before. Parts of this movie were reminiscent of “The French Connection” or “Scarface”. And in particular I was reminded of “Blow”, that Johnny Depp movie that came out a few years ago about another enterprising drug dealer.

There are a few things about Frank Lucas’s story that sets it apart from the pack, the most obvious being that he is black. And the film does make a big deal about this.
To be honest, Hollywood and blacksploitation movies had given me the impression that powerful black gangsters dated from much earlier, so I was a bit surprised that even in the 70s it was a big deal for a black man to achieve his own drug empire. But, since this is a movie that seems to have done its research, so I’ll trust it on this.

Also, Frank Lucas’s story is tied into the Vietnam War, so it gives the film a bit of history. Frank Lucas heard about the massive drug addiction of US troops in Vietnam, and went over to Cambodia himself to negotiate importing heroin directly from the local mafia. He used US soldiers to do it, and his operation was only able to exist because of the massive amount of US troops going back and forth to Indochina.

The 3rd reason this film is moderately more interesting than your average gangster film is the amount of official corruption involved. And the fact that it’s all true. It’s amazing that Frank Lucas was able to ship heroin from Cambodia all the way to South Carolina using the US military, and being able to buy off someone at every step of the way. He was never at a loss to find someone he could buy off. As the director mentions in the commentary track, it says something depressing about human nature.

The New York city police department is incredibly corrupt too, and in this regard the story of the police officer tracking down Frank Lucas (played by Russell Crowe) is more interesting than Frank Lucas’s story itself. Corruption is so rampant that when the Russell Crowe character and his partner find 1 million dollars in an empty car, and they decide to turn it in rather than keep it, they’re ostracized by the rest of the police department, and it’s the beginning of the end of their careers.
It’s a shocking commentary on how deadly a mere reputation for honesty can be in police work. The director and writer both comment on this on the DVD commentary track. They also mention that this was back in the early 1970s, and things are better nowadays. I guess I’ll have to take their word for it. I have no personal experience working in a police station.

Josh Brolin plays detective Trupo a corrupt policeman who is a thorn in the sides of both Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe. It creates an interesting storyline, and Josh Brolin plays him excellently.
I never heard of Josh Brolin until this month, but he was in "No Country for Old Men" and “Planet Terror” and this movie, and he did an excellent job in all of them. I suspect he’s one of the next rising stars in Hollywood. (In fact, according to Wikipedia he’s going to play George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s next movie. That should be interesting to see).

Link of the Day
Michigan State House Primary 2008: What to Watch

Bonus Link: More Japanese music on Youtube.
From the early 70s Japanese Folk Rock scene, this was always one of my favorite songs. Quite a nice set of pipes on this girl, and the melody is quite nice too.

Live Version here.

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