With the release of Ridley Scott's serviceable "American Gangster," the New York heroin heyday gets its big Hollywood close-up. "Mr. Untouchable" is the kid brother of "Gangster," using a far cheaper documentary method to probe into the same smack-laden years, using the story of Leroy "Nicky" Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in "Gangster") as a guide to the highs and lows of being a drug kingpin.
Once a wizardly Gandalf of the street corner, Barnes is now safely tucked away in the bosom of the Witness Relocation Program, and only appears in "Mr. Untouchable" in shadows and various tight close-ups of him fingering a bullet or dividing up a mound of cocaine. Barnes remains the elusive figurehead of crime he was 30 years back, and it's remarkable to see he still carries the same resentment and ego that eventually brought him to justice.
Director Marc Levin is bursting with facts and interviews, building the foundation of Barnes's career with the same furrowed-brow concentration you'd find in a game of Jenga. A former junkie, Barnes knew his product well, using the experience to deliver the finest experience money could buy. With his brand name established, the profits soared, and millions poured in every year while overall heroin abuse rocketed up, creating misery in the city. Of course, Barnes and his crew, nicknamed "The Council," didn't see their business as problematical, washing away the guilt by providing the community with turkey giveaways at Thanksgiving and assorted neighborhood good deeds over the year.
Barnes's rule intimidated cops, created a precarious marriage/mistress situation, and most importantly, it turned him into a media star. With the law unable to catch him, Barnes became a poster boy for the arrogance of crime: The New York Times dubbing him "Mr. Untouchable" for his inability to be prosecuted. With fancy clothes, exquisite automobiles, and a penchant for the lessons of Machiavelli, Barnes soaked up every moment of fame, turning himself into a fur-lined icon.
Through interviews with Council members and front-line witnesses to Barnes's pioneering way, "Untouchable" does a superb job priming the viewer on the era and the criminals, demonstrating how everyone who caught the scent of Barnes's power was forever his slave. He ruled not with an iron fist, but with his legend, and his community revered him.
As much as "Untouchable" hugs the rise of Barnes, the more fascinating journey is in the downfall, where the top dog, facing a life sentence after being picked up for a traffic violation, turns informant. As quickly as Barnes built his empire, he tore it down, turning on his gang and sending nearly every member of The Council to prison. Barnes claims it was an act of retribution (a debatable proclamation for sure), and with a simple act of self-preservation, he secured a comfy future for himself, his legacy barely dented.
On its own, "Mr. Untouchable" is a solid education on a specific period of time reigned over by a demon who willingly spread sickness to line his pockets. The film is even better as a companion piece to "American Gangster," illuminating the drug trade from a more informational perspective.
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