American Gangster (2007)

Early in the seminal Vietnam War film The Boys In Company C an ex pimp and drug dealer from Chicago named Tyrone Washington is on a punishment detail at Marine Corps basic training in San Diego. Instead of breaking for the day, he and his four companions have to unload a supply truck. After they drop a wooden crate, and it breaks open, revealing what Washington’s friend Billy Ray Pike thinks are sleeping bags, a light bulb goes off over his head. They’re not sleeping bags at all, but body bags. There are so many bodies being shipped back to the United States from Vietnam, and the United States military has such a ritualized cult of honor about the remains of American soldiers, body bags headed back to Dover Air Force base would make the perfect cover for a heroin smuggling operation. Who would dare look inside? After Washington, who’s a man of honor in spite of his criminal past, observes Pike almost die of a drug overdose, he decides he can’t go through with it. But not every American soldier in Vietnam was a man of honor.

Tyrone Washington’s real life counterpart was a United States army master sergeant named Leslie Atkinson. “Ike” Atkinson,  who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1975, was part owner in a nightclub called Jack’s American Star Bar, an establishment in Bangkok he had become involved with in the mid-1960s. Why he decided to move to Thailand even even before he was sent to Vietnam by the United States Army is anybody’s guess. His business parter, a man named Luchai Rubiwat,  had extensive connections to the opium trade in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, and that opium, Atkinson concluded, would be a gold mine to anybody who could smuggle it into the United States and distribute it. He had the right connections in Southeast Asia. Now, all he needed was the right connections back home.

Back in the United States, the former driver and bodyguard of Harlem crime lord Bumpy Johnson, a North Carolina native named Frank Lucas, had a flash of inspiration, saw that light bulb go off over his own head the same way that Tyrone Washington did the first time he saw a crate full of body bags. Having met Atkinson in Thailand, Lucas realized that if he if he could import 100% pure heroin directly from the source in The Golden Triangle, he could not only bypass the corrupt New York City Police Department — who were confiscating heroin, re cutting it, and putting it back on the streets — he could break free of the Italian mafia, who controlled Harlem through their black surrogates. It worked. Even though Atkinson always denied using body bags — claiming it was a dramatic embellishment by Lucas — the pair of “American Gangsters” did use United States military transports returning from Vietnam. Both became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. When he was arrested in 1975, Lucas had $584,683 in cash in his house in Teaneck, New Jersey, and over 200 million dollars deposited in Cayman Island bank accounts.

What became known as the “cadaver connection” is such a great story that it’s not surprising it was the center piece of the earliest important film about the American occupation of Vietnam.  What’s positively baffling is how it just sat there for 30 years. Not only did Stanley Kubrick cut it out of Full Metal Jacket,  his stylized knockoff of The Boys in Company C, Hollywood disappeared it altogether. Except for an oblique allusion in Miami Vice, the “cadaver connection” never made it into the American cinema. It’s not in Apocalypse Now. It’s not in The Deer Hunter. It’s not in Platoon, Hamburger Hill, We Were Soldiers, or Casualties of War. And it’s certainly nowhere to be seen in Forrest Gump. The whole story was erased from the American historical imagination as surely as Trotsky’s photo had been cut out of official Soviet propaganda. Even the undeniable proof offered up by Gary Webb that 20 years later the CIA smuggled cocaine into South Central Los Angeles couldn’t bring it back. I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but this just makes my tinfoil hat start to glow bright red. Portraying American soldiers as rapists, murderers and war criminals the way Brian De Palma did in Casualties of War was one thing. You could write them off as “a few bad apples.” But the idea that at the very beginning of the “war on drugs” United States military transports were being used to ship hundreds of millions of dollars of heroin from The Golden Triangle to the United States is another issue altogether.  That would imply conscious organization from the top down.

Perhaps the incestuous relationship of the United States military with Hollywood could explain why the “cadaver connection” made it into only one American film about Vietnam, The Boys in Company C, a low budget B movie funded out of Hong Kong?

In 2007, the “cadaver connection” was finally put on screen in a mainstream Hollywood film, very mainstream. Not only did it star Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, it was directed by Ridley Scott, of Blade Runner, Alien, Black Hawk Down, and Thelma and Louise fame. I suppose, perhaps, that with the drug war winding down, and with the War in Vietnam a distant, hazy memory, American cinema could explore “the cadaver connection” in more detail. The only problem is that American Gangster is just not a very engaging movie. It’s not a bad movie, but it is a movie badly in need of an editor. While politically nuanced, thoughtful, and even progressive, American Gangster is ponderous and slow moving. It would be hard to point out where exactly it goes wrong. It doesn’t. Except for one ghastly misstep where the neighborhood under the Manhattan Bridge is identified as “Newark New Jersey” — there are 30 million people in the NYC metropolitan area and you wouldn’t get that howler past even one of them — it’s technically, dramatically, and aesthetically quite sound. American Gangster even “makes you think.” It doesn’t shy away from the “cadaver connection.” It shows New York City police officers as being little different from criminals. Go see Serpico if you want more. Ridley Scott has a feel for the rhythm of cinema. When the film finally gets moving , it’s genuinely tense and exciting.

The problem is the way Ridley Scott locks the fascinating story of “the cadaver connection” into a tediously mainstream Hollywood narrative: Crime as the American Dream, the gangster as Horatio Alger. If that weren’t enough, he introduces a parallel narrative, one even more cliched: the maverick cop who bucks the system. They’re both perfectly legitimate subjects for a film. But unless you’re a genius willing to take the story so far over the top that it becomes surreal — the way Brian De Palma did it in Scarface — or be completely original about it— and for the life of me I can’t think of a completely original film about a “maverick cop” — it’s not going to hold anybody’s interest. People will go see it.  But they won’t remember it. American Gangster was a financial and critical success. But it never entered into the American collective consciousness the way Scarface or The Godfather have.

Denzel Washington — who’s one of the great actors of his generation and couldn’t turn in a bad performance if he tried — plays Frank Lucas. American Gangster opens with Lucas, and his mentor Bumpy Johnson, played by Clarence Williams III, burning a man alive. Theoretically, this should mark off Lucas as a villain, like Robert Deniro in The Untouchables when he cracks open one of his lackey’s skulls with a baseball bat. But Lucas and Bumpy Johnson aren’t villains. They’re benevolent capitalists. Bumpy is a Harlem legend, as much local politician as gangster. If he orders his right-hand man to burn a man alive, he also gives out food parcels to the needy on 125th Street. The film cuts to Bumpy and Lucas in a big discount appliance store. For Bumpy, the idea of a department store buying wholesale right from the manufacturer is a violation of the social contract. It destroys the small businessman. But for Lucas,it’s a flash of inspiration. After Bumpy dies of a heart attack, and Lucas takes over his rackets, Lucas, like the historical Frank Lucas, and like the appliance store, decides to buy wholesale right from the manufacturer. He flies to Thailand, takes a boat up river, and meets with a Thai warlord who agrees to be his supplier. Soon, Harlem, then the United States as a whole, is flooded with Blue Magic, a superior product that, like Walter White’s Blue Meth in Breaking Bad, upsets the market and makes Lucas rich. Lucas, as if he were a sports star or a rock star, marries a beauty queen, brings his family up to Harlem from North Carolina, and starts living the good life. Like Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring, however, he’s smart enough to stay low key. He goes to church with his mother every Sunday. He dresses conservatively. Like his mentor Bumpy Johnson, he establishes himself as a local benefactor. He gives out out food parcels to the needy, and becomes a solid member of his community.

Bumpy Johnson’s tried and true methods work so well for Frank Lucas that the NYPD, who are either racists — they can’t believe a black man would have the brains to cut in on the Italians — or corrupt — they’ll look the other way for the right payoff — let him “hide in plain sight” for years. But Newark New Jersey is not New York City, and a “maverick” Jersey cop named Richie Roberts — maverick because he’s honest and doesn’t take bribes — has been promoted to head the federal government’s narcotic bureau in north Jersey. Roberts, Russell Crowe, slowly and patiently traces the supply of Blue Magic back to Lucas. Roberts is a sympathetic character and Crowe is perfectly believable as an underdog from Jersey, but, sadly, it’s just propaganda. Here we are, at the very inception of the “war on drugs,” in a film with a real budget, a cast of A-list actors, and a story waiting to be told, and Ridley Scott directs yet another film about “one good cop.” If Scott criticizes The American Dream by portraying it as a crime story, he injects the American Dream with new life by portraying it as the story of a sympathetic police officer. There’s a silly, made up subplot about Roberts in a custody battle for his son — the real life Roberts never had any kids — and Roberts is something of a womanizer, but we don’t care. Richie Roberts is a super hero who not only brings down the sympathetic in spite of his being a drug lord Frank Lucas. He exposes a corrupt NYPD police detective, an oily “dress for success” bully played to perfection by Josh Brolin. Schlub from Jersey gets even with an Armani clad NYC slickster? Hell, even I wanted to be a cop after watching this film.

It’s just too bad that Ridley Scott didn’t have the imagination to center American Gangster, not on the characters of Lucas and Roberts, but on the story of the cadaver connection. Indeed, while American Gangster drags over the course of its almost three hours, it comes alive in the last half hour. Robert’s has traced the source of the Blue Magic back to a military transport. He knows the drugs are hidden in one of the coffins. He has a warrant to search the whole plane, but the military won’t let him do it. Roberts is clever enough to get around the military’s fastidiousness about opening up the coffins of the remains of American service personal, but you can’t help but sigh at the great story that Ridley Scott missed. According to the real Richie Roberts and Judge Sterling Johnson, who presided over Lucas’ trial, the film was 99% Hollywood, 1% reality. Ridley Scott took the wrong liberties with history. He fictionalized the wrong parts of Lucas’ story.

If — according to the historical Richie Roberts — the real Frank Lucas was an illiterate thug, not the clever, educated businessman portrayed by Denzel Washington, then who really masterminded the “cadaver connection?” Was Lucas, like the Freeway Ricky Ross of Iran Contra fame, just a conduit for a conspiracy by the United States government to smuggle heroin into the United States? The war in Vietnam was winding down. The military was falling apart. But the “war on drugs” and the prison industrial complex were gearing up, and would, under Ronald Reagan, become a key part of the United States surveillance/security state. The war on drugs would create jobs, for lawyers, cops, federal agents, even filmmakers. Could it have been put into place by people higher up on the food chain than Frank Lucas, conspirators who wanted power, not just money? Who knows. But it would have made a great story. Sadly, Ridley Scott chose not to tell it.

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3 comments

  1. Leslie “Ike” Atkinson died on November 11, 2014

  2. He passed away quietly in a hospital in Goldsboro surrounded by his family. You can view pictures of him alive during the last few hours of his life. He was a trooper until the end!! R.I.P. Ike. See my facebook page @ Omega Payton

  3. […] bags, the contents of which are never examined. Ridley Scott would go on to flesh out the story of the “cadaver connection” in American Gangster, but The Boys in Company C tells it better, and with a lot less narrative baggage. The executive […]

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