The Reeler


October 25, 2007

Mr. Untouchable

Imaginatively bankrupt portrait drains the color from one of NYC's flashiest gangsters

Mr. Untouchable, Marc Levin's documentary about the life and crimes of Nicky Barnes, is so blinkered and unthinking (and its filmmakers so imaginatively bankrupt) in portraying its title subject that a potentially unique story is retrospectively flattened into yet another gangsta crime saga, blander than the blandest of 50 Cent songs. Is Scarface the template for a thousand rap narratives or did it happen the other way around? When did ex-dealers start referring to themselves as "sidewalk executives" and feel no need to explain themselves?

Barnes -- a '70s heroin kingpin turned federal stool pigeon -- is introduced in silhouette at the head of a corporate boardroom table, as if his OG story is the logical predecessor to current rap and business demagogues like Jay-Z and Damon Dash. (Dash's company, by the way, is a co-producer of this film; the press kit bio boasts of his well known cross-integration of products, "from high-end fashion apparel to luxury vodka and boxing.") Mr. Untouchable is just one more product -- a plutographic, oddly envious look at a man who got to bust some heads, sleep with barely-legal teens and do lots of coke. Lucky, lucky.

The "Al Capone of Harlem" was born at 115th and 8th, buying heroin for his own junkie needs, cutting it to double the presumable quantity and selling it back at a profit. Barnes eventually stopped using so he could make some real money. There's a seriously unimaginative montage of access-TV quality footage to accentuate his points: people shooting up and shooting others, trading off drugs, getting out their spoons and freebasing, all set to Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman." Other so-obvious-they're-surprising musical selections: Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" (over tales of romantic failure) and Edwin Starr's "War" (over tales of drug wars). Would it be too much to ask for songs that haven't been played thousands of times in every movie ever? Is this part of a deliberate strategy to make Barnes's tale even more archetypal than it is?

Not surprisingly, Mr. Untouchable is a rise-and-fall narrative virtually indistinguishable from any other. As a human being, Barnes is reasonably funny, if you like that kind of thing: He refers to one enemy as a “faggot-ass motherfucker" and compares his pursuit of the almighty dollar to Captain Ahab's pursuit of the whale. A lot of time is spent documenting his appetite for money, women and drugs other than heroin. Director Marc Levin briefly raises some intriguing points: Barnes defends his organization's motto of "Treat my brother as I treat myself" as a legitimate lift from the Qur'an and wonders if "I, as a dealer, was a tool of the white man." Mostly, though, the same old tired arguments are raised over and over in self-defense: drug dealers give back generously to their community, they just hustle to survive, buy any jeans necessary, etc..

What is unique about Barnes -- his decision to testify against his former associates out of sheer spite and revenge, helping to convict over 50 people -- is glossed over, presumably because as a plot conceit it's not violent or simple enough; there’s no way to integrate snitching into the rise and fall narrative. Mr. Untouchable's ultimate achievement is to flatten a real, colorful life into something less original than its fictional equivalent. Scarface is the documentary; this is the pale imitation.

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