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Volume 77, Number 26 | November 28 - December 04 2007

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Koch On Film

By Ed Koch

“American Gangster” (+)

This movie is worth seeing, but it is not as good as “The Godfather” films or the television series “The Sopranos.” That’s because the story does not allow the audience to know intimately the central character, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), or anyone else who appears in the picture.

Lucas built a crime family empire in New York in the 1970s, cornered the drug trade at its source in Vietnam, and became a very wealthy man. He bought a beautiful old mansion in the south for his family and mother who is played in the film by Ruby Dee. His mob underbosses were his many brothers, and his empire in power and money is described in the film as bigger than all of the other crime families combined.

Lucas was eventually brought down by an honest police detective, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), who could not be bought. Roberts was hated by his fellow police officers, most of whom depicted in the film were on the take themselves.

I believe the writers missed the boat in not fleshing out the Lucas family relationships more than they did. It would have been interesting to learn much more about Lucas’s wife (Carla Gugino), who is described as a Puerto Rican beauty queen. She is given very little to do other than to look beautiful on the screen. “American Gangster” is worth seeing, because it deals with a mostly unknown part of our country’s criminal culture — a black figure dominating established mobs and organized crime.

Frank Lucas, Richie Roberts, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe were guests on the Charlie Rose show the night the film opened. Lucas, who is now old and infirm, was seated in a wheelchair. They all deferred in their comments to the director, Ridley Scott.

HS says: “The picture is quite good, both as a work of art and a lesson in sociology. You never know in these films how much is true and how much is enhanced, but enough of it is true to give you a good idea of the life and works of Frank Lucas, former king of the Harlem drug trade. His nemesis is a troubled detective, Richie Roberts, who pursues Lucas with the intensity of Inspector Javert. We observe that Lucas is a dutiful and generous son to his mother, faithful to his wife, and provides opportunities (illegal, of course) for his extended family. Roberts’ wife is splitting for Vegas, because he spends no time with her or their adorable young son, and on top of this he sleeps around. Note the enormous contrast between the protagonists’ personal and professional lives. How does that relate to the presidential campaign in 2008?”


“Redacted” (+)

This film, written and directed by Brian De Palma, did not receive rave reviews. Indeed, some critics disapproved of its negative views towards the United States. Although the sentiments expressed in the picture are often negative toward the U.S., I simply kept that in mind and then enjoyed the movie as a movie.

The plot is based on a true incident in Samarra, Iraq, involving a squad of American soldiers who engaged in a gang rape of a 15-year-old girl. During the rape, one of the soldiers proceeded to shoot and kill the girl’s mother, younger sister and grandfather.

The technique used by De Palma to move the story forward — a fictionalized and interesting component — is having one of the soldiers, Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz), constantly video tape the thoughts and experiences of his comrades. In addition to Angel, other soldiers we meet include Reno Flake (Patrick Carroll), who ultimately shows his pathological persona, Rush (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a criminal at heart, and Gabe Blix (Kel O’Neill), a bookish guy reading O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra” who is referred to by one of the soldiers good naturedly as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” McCoy (Rob Devaney) is the inherent non-commissioned leader of the squad who fails in his duty to stop the rape and never recovers from the trauma, and Master Sgt. Jim Sweet (Ty Jones) is the experienced non com who fails to live by his own rules and advice on how to stay alive and suffers the consequences.

I think “Redacted” is worth seeing. Keep in mind that an army is made up of the society that provides the soldiers. Such depraved incidents undoubtedly occur in every army. Indeed, it occurred not long ago in Okinawa where the U.S. Army has been stationed in a period of peace for the last 60 years. The New Yorker reported in its review of the film that “four men have been convicted and one is awaiting trial.”

De Palma undoubtedly intended to make an anti-American film for propaganda purposes against the war in Iraq. He also made a very interesting war movie. When I saw the film on a Saturday night at a 6:10 p.m., the movie house was half empty.


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