As traditional as Thanksgiving: American gangster myths and movies. This season’s top entry is maybe overcooked. I felt like I was watching two movies. The one starring Denzel Washington was like an African-American GODFATHER II, in which Denzel proves himself once again to be a genuine movie star. You just want to watch him do whatever he’s going to do, whatever the story.
Which is fortunate, because the story is erratic and full of scenes that seem like non-secquitors. Poor Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the more famous Harlem drug lord, Nicky Barnes, in a story line that obviously got chopped so that his role becomes a slightly glorified cameo that doesn’t quite fit, and there’s other storylines that make even less sense.
The other movie stars Russell Crowe floundering for the first time in my experience. His Australian accent comes through his attempt at a New Jersey accent that I couldn’t figure out where it sounded like it was from, but no Jersey I live in or grew up in.
The one scene with both Washington and Crowe in it, is excellent. Two great actors kicking ass. But in the rest of Crowe’s scenes, it’s hit or miss, unusual for him. But it could just be the writing, because the story too often doesn’t make any sense.
Let’s see, a really straight cop, a boy scout type pisses all his fellow cops off when he turns in a ton of money he stumbles on and could retire on, money meant for corrupt cops, (which seemed contrived to this member of an extended family with a lot of Jersey cops in it, not the corruption but every other cop supporting it), and then when given the chance to head his own outfit of dedicated detectives, he chooses guys who seem more interested in booze and broads than solving crimes. Huh?
And it’s long. But there’s enough great scenes, disjointed or not, to make it worth seeing, and in the end it’s a pretty good attempt to create another crime-boss classic. It doesn’t achieve that, but it manages to mythologize Frank Lucas, the real life Harlem drug lord the film’s about, creating another glorified crime boss.
On the way out of the theater in Jersey where I saw the movie, an older black gentleman entered the elevator car me and Terence Winch were in. When I asked the man if he was coming from GANGSTER, he nodded, so I asked what he thought of it and he said, with quiet dignity, “I’m ashamed I paid to see it.”
I said, “Because it glorifies Lucas?” Thinking he, like me, was afraid of the impact it would have on yet another generation of African-American boys, and not just them, wanting to grow up to be gangsters. But he surprised me and said, “Because I knew Frank Lucas, I helped put him away. He was…” and then he said something that meant evil, no good, destructive, heartless, a man who had done enormous harm, but I can’t remember exactly the words he used because I was so startled.
When I asked, “You mean you worked with the cop Russel Crowe played?” The man said, “No, I worked for the DEA.” By then we were on the first floor and were getting off. I watched the man leave the theater ahead of us, and despite my criticsms of the DEA, for a minute I felt a little ashamed myself.