It’s laughable when a movie comes right out and says it’s based on a true story or, no, no, even better, “based on actual events.” A guarantee like that isn’t worth the cost of the polymer it’s printed on, or in the case of the newly filmless Carmike 10, the electrons it took to beam that hoo-hah down from space. Actual events, you say? Well, then, that’s settled. Nothing to do but just lie back and wait for the inevitable end titles wrapping up who went to prison, who died, who’s living quietly somewhere. Those titles give closure, a happy ending, a just-so story, no ambiguity. Heaven forbid you shouldn’t know exactly how everything ended up. It’s not that different from the where-are-they-now curtain calls at the end of Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and the Van Halen “Hot for Teacher” video, too.
All those titles, tugging at you like little kids, laying their hands on your shoulder, spoiling secrets and hiding things behind their backs. And mocking your trust: There’s that vaguely worded claim about real events and altered names at the beginning of Fargo, and it’s as arch or mischievous or drolly ironic as anything else in a Coen Brothers movies. The fine print at the end of movies that claim to be pure fiction assures us that any similarity between the characters and actual persons living or dead is only coincidence. But is there anything preventing somebody from slapping a title on a fiction movie and saying that it actually happened?
The disclaimers at the beginning of Fur, ostensibly a Diane Arbus biopic, read like something a lawyer recommended at the last minute to keep the filmmakers from getting sued. There are two or three screenfuls of them, touchy and defensive, insisting that the love story between the actual famous photographer and the lycanthrope living one floor up is merely an “imagining” or some such nonsense, fictional license with a real life, a fanciful extrapolation of something that might have started Arbus down her “creative path.” How unctuous, how cowardly. Who needs all that assurance? Fargo could be based on a campfire story for all we ever find out, and for all it really matters.
If voice-overs are lazy, disclaimers up-front spoil half the fun of going to the movies. When you go into a movie knowing it’s “based on a true story,” just for starters you can be reasonably sure which characters are going to live, or at least not die as predictably as in some fiction genres where doomed characters practically have the time and place stamped on their foreheads. You might not know what’s going to happen, but you know some things just can’t happen. And if you know how the real-life story ends, the only surprise is some trivia you maybe didn’t know. In title form. Ignorance is bliss if you want to see a movie like Zodiac. If you know the real story there’s no getting around the ending, which makes the movie kind of a pointless exercise.
The name Frank Lucas might have had some household status once, although nothing like the Zodiac. In 2007 he’s obscure enough that a movie can take all kinds of liberties with his story in the name of entertainment with a disclaimer. It gives Denzel Washington more latitude to invent the character of Frank Lucas for himself than he might have had with, say, Malcolm X. A handful of people who know the real Frank Lucas might see things differently, but since he’s not as famous as Malcolm X, most of us don’t have many pre-conceived notions. Frank Lucas was the heroin dealer who hit on the idea of cutting out the middleman and importing unadulterated stock directly from Southeast Asia in the coffins of dead servicemen—something I always thought of as an apocryphal bit of Vietnam.
Washington’s Frank Lucas is polite, principled, very black and white, right down to the way he uses his favorite expression, “My man!” When he says “My man!” to a character, that character has earned himself one of two things: Frank’s squinty respect, or the consequences of not showing enough respect. We soon find out he’s got a temper, and we already know from his first appearance he settles his scores but good.
Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the cop obsessed with taking Lucas down. Their stories run parallel for most of the movie, and Crowe is good, but his story isn’t as interesting. Also, for a “true story,” American Gangster has a lot of cop and gangster clichés, from the weak-willed partner to the trophy wife seduced by opulence and caught in the crossfire. And are there any movie cops out there who don’t have wives about to leave them?
American Gangster has good performances: Beyond Crowe and Washington, Josh Brolin is memorable as a crooked cop and Armand Assante as an Italian mobster reinventing himself as an English country gentleman. Wu Tan Clan’s RZA is too cool for school as a special agent. It’s no Godfather, but there’s just enough action, just enough violence, enough of everything in American Gangster to keep you engaged for two and a half hours before the wrap-up titles.