Mr. Untouchable ***

Posted: October 26, 2007

With Nicky Barnes, Thelma Grant, Jackie Hayden, Frank James, Louie Diaz and others. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 1 hour, 32 mins. No MPAA rating (profanity, drugs, adult themes). Playing at AMC Cherry Hill, AMC Franklin Mills, the Pearl and United Artists Cheltenham.

Poised to capitalize on the presence, and star wattage (Denzel! Crowe!), of American Gangster in theaters next week, Mr. Untouchable is a talking-heads documentary set in the same lucrative, lurid world of drug-dealing 1970s New York. Nicky Barnes, who worked in the shadow of American Gangster's Frank Lucas until Lucas went to jail (Barnes is played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in Gangster), was a junkie turned cocaine and heroin kingpin. In 1977, he appeared on the cover of the New York Times' Sunday magazine, under the headline "Mr. Untouchable."

Now living in the witness protection program - and cloaked in shadows for his boastful interviews in Marc Levin's film - Barnes talks about his Machiavelli-inspired business principles, his ability to elude conviction, and the enormous sums of money he made by selling to, and exploiting, the mostly African American community of Harlem. Intercut with stock footage of '70s street scenes, remembrances from Barnes' ex-wife, attorney and colleagues - and the cops and DAs that tried to nab him - and deploying a soundtrack of vintage soul that includes James Brown, Al Green and Curtis Mayfield, Mr. Untouchable is never dull.

But it is disturbing. Showing stacks of bills lining the table where Barnes is filmed for the doc, and showing no remorse whatsoever for feeding the habits of thousands upon thousands of addicts, the "black Godfather" comes off as a cold-blooded narcissist whose vision of the American Dream is as twisted as it seems to have been rewarding.

- Steven Rea

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