Audiences love gangsters on film. They appeared as early as 1912 in D.W. Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley. Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface set the tone in the early 1930s for generations of hard-talking hard guys on film: Rico Bandello, Duke Mantee, Vito Corleone, Tony Montana, Tony Soprano, Frank Costello. Now, there’s Frank Lucas. He’s the American Gangster grossing more than 80 million dollars the past two weekends. Lucas ran the drug business in Harlem in the 1970s. His story from director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Hannibal) presents fictionalized fact and has elements linking it with Bill Duke’s Harlem mobster tale from 1997, Hoodlum. Here’s our Smackdown: Which film draws the more compelling picture about personal corruption as bullets fly and people die.
American Gangster shows Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) emerging from the shadows on the death of his hoodlum mentor, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. The apprenticeship is over and Lucas hatches a plan to extend his hold over the heroin trade far beyond anything Bumpy could envision. He enforces his will through smarts, intimidation and murder. Lucas has family members strategically placed across the region. His involvement is largely unknown to authorities. By the mid-1970s his rule blankets upper Manhattan and Frank lives like some CEO with a trophy wife. A chinchilla coat she gives him draws the attention of drug cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who begins connecting the dots. The contrast with Lucas is night and day: Richie’s life is a mess, his wife is divorcing him, and he’s an outcast in the station house because he didn’t pocket a million dollars in unmarked bills seized during a bust. Their fates are firmly linked but ironically, Lucas and Roberts don’t actually meet until late in the film. Frank Lucas is not the only bad guy snared by Roberts (that group also includes dirty cops). None of it might have happened if Roberts hadn’t noticed Lucas wearing that gaudy chinchilla coat at the boxing match. Steven Zaillian adapted the screenplay from an article by Mark Jacobson.
Hoodlum focuses on another real person — Bumpy Johnson, who inspired Frank Lucas. Bill Duke directs from a Chris Brancato screenplay that lands the audience squarely in the numbers racket of 1930s Harlem. Bumpy (Laurence Fishburne) keeps the bets straight with a businessman demeanor which belies his willingness to fix a problem with a gun or knife. In the teeth of the Great Depression he lives like a king. Bumpy’s Harlem is the world of the Cotton Club, tailored suits and fancy women. Crooked cops, public officials on the take and machine gunfire color this dramatic landscape. Bumpy has bigger problems with Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) who is muscling in on Harlem’s illegal lottery goldmine. More than once Dutch tries to kill him. As a matter of self-preservation Johnson enters into an uneasy alliance with mobster Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia). He survives while others around him do not. Frank Lucas’ character does not appear in the film.
These movies offer big differences in style and tone. Hoodlum tells a straightforward story with high production values and a costume-drama feel. The effect is well-scrubbed, almost pretty. There’s even a bit of Tosca in the soundtrack. The producers filmed exteriors in Chicago since present-day Harlem no longer suits the time-frame in which the story takes place. Fishburne, Roth and Garcia handle their characters nicely. Hoodlum also features Clarence Williams III, Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson, Chi McBride and Queen Latifah. American Gangster offers no romantic notions about the Harlem subculture where Frank Lucas operates. This is a world where heroin exacts a fearful toll you see in the track marks and ruined lives. No Puccini, no Cotton Club here, just a bullet in the head to enforce discipline. The film has a rough, grainy look that suits the material. Against that backdrop Academy Award winners Washington and Crowe deliver controlled, understated performances. Their parallel stories shows real contrasts: Richie Roberts can’t seem to catch a break; Frank Lucas offers living proof — for a while, anyway — that crime does pay. By the time their stories converge you gain a reliable sense about these men and their opposing motives. In addition, American Gangster features impressive turns from a supporting cast that includes Josh Brolin, Armand Assante, Carla Gugino, Cuba Gooding Jr, Ruby Dee and Joe Morton among others. Do you sense one of these movies finds the corrupt, empty center that makes gangsters so intriguing? You should. Our winner?
With Brancato’s excellent screenplay as its engine, Hoodlum tells its story simply and handsomely. The inventive staging would better serve different material. This approach doesn’t quite fit with a story about bloody gang warfare. The result is entertainment that doesn’t invite you to think very deeply. By contrast, American Gangster demonstrates a better feel for the material and the way it is presented. The film looks right and doesn’t romanticize any aspect surrounding the trade in “Blue Magic” heroin. The parallel story lines lend complexity and risk to American Gangster. They elevate the movie beyond the usual cops-and-robbers structure. We get to learn more about those characters and care about them. One is a moral man who can’t hold onto his family. The other is amoral and lands his family in jail. Even so, this construction might have worked better if Frank encountered Richie earlier in the movie. Want to strengthen your DVD collection of great mob movies? Add our winner, “American Gangster” if you miss its current run in the cineplex.