Gangster Life Depicted on Film

Crime has come to the movies in a big way. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star in American Gangster, a film about the career of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas. And the documentary Mr. Untouchable offers a look at Lucas' main rival, Nicky Barnes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When you're done with your yoga this weekend, you can go to movies. Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan reviews two new films about the heroin trade in 1970s New York.

KENNETH TURAN: These are good times to be an OG, an original gangster. Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe star in a new film about the career of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas called "American Gangster"; and a new documentary, "Mr. Untouchable," offers a look at Lucas's main rival, Nicky Barnes, known to some as the black godfather. There is no love lost between these men - in the documentary or the Hollywood film.

Barnes, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., comes off as a bit of a showboat in a small role in "American Gangster." And in the documentary, Barnes refers contemptuously to Lucas as country boy. "American Gangster"'s plot views Frank Lucas's criminal enterprise as a left-handed form of human endeavor.

Denzel Washington owns the film as the man with a dream.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Gangster")

Mr. DENZEL WAHINGTON (Actor): (As Frank Lucas) The man I worked for had one of the biggest companies in New York City. He ran it for more than 50 years. He was rich, but he wasn't white-man rich. You see, he wasn't wealthy. He didn't his own company. He thought he did. But he didn't. He just managed it. A white man owned it, so they owned him. Nobody owns me though.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) How you doin,' baby?

Unidentified Woman: Good.

Mr. WASHINGTON; (As Frank Lucas) It 'cause I own my own company. And my company sells products that's better than the competition - at a price that's lower than the competition.

TURAN: That competition would be documentary subject Barnes, shot in the shadows because he's in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Barnes on screen is cocky and full of himself. Only at the end, when he talks about cooperating with the police, do you get a glimpse of the real man.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mr. Untouchable")

Mr. NICKY BARNES (Drug Lord): And they could call me a snitch. I'd rather be here and be considered a betrayer of them than to be in there and to be considered a stand-up guy while they could be out here violating the rules. I'm out. They're in.

TURAN: Though you might not expect it, it is the fictional "American Gangster" that gives that period a more meaningful and more involving look than the documentary.

That's because "American Gangster" is old-school epic film making. When you combine Steven Zaillian's character-driven script with director Ridley Scott's grasp of sweeping storytelling, you get bravura moviemaking that makes the documentary pale by comparison.

Watching "American Gangster" in tandem with "Mr. Untouchable" underlines that the Hollywood film is less based on actual fact than on movie fiction. What "American Gangster" is doing is recreating myths. And it's good to see that the movies haven't lost their touch where that kind of work is concerned.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for the Los Angeles Times and for MORNING EDITION.

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