Legendary '70s heroin kingpin Leroy "Nicky" Barnes is filmed like a deposed king in exile in Mr. Untouchable, Marc Levin's slick look at one of New York's most notorious criminal masterminds. Since Barnes is still in hiding with a reported million-dollar bounty on his head after ratting out former associates, the filmmakers obviously can't shoot his face. Levin cleverly transforms this limitation into an ambiguous strength by surrounding Barnes with the iconic trappings of the good life and lingering fetishistically on sharp cuff links, stacks of bills, and the effervescent fizz of expensive champagne. (Levin shows admirable restraint in not including shots of Barnes polishing a giant diamond or swimming around in a vault full of rubies, Scrooge McDuck-style.) He gives his subject a well-buffed iconic sheen augmented by Barnes' rumbling baritone voice and carefully chosen words. Even in his diminished state, Barnes radiates power and authority. As an alternately revered and reviled government stooge, Barnes may be a shadow of his former self, but Levin seems intent on restoring his lost luster.
Mr. Untouchable chronicles Barnes' meteoric ascent as an ex-junkie who rose to unprecedented heights by joining forces with the white mafia and flooding the streets with powerful heroin. Barnes ran a sprawling drug empire, but when the Feds got to him and his criminal coalition fell apart, he turned on his former partners. There's no greater violation of the criminal code than snitching, but here, as in his self-serving autobiography of the same name, Barnes seems immune from remorse or shame.
The latest film to simultaneously glorify and condemn high-end criminality, Mr. Untouchable immerses itself in funky '70s chic and hip outlaw cool, aided by a wall-to-wall soundtrack of soul classics and producer Hi-Tek's funky, swaggering score. Many of the period signifiers are obvious and hackneyed, and the reliance on well-worn stock footage in lieu of period footage of Barnes in action is understandable if regrettable. Levin makes sure to highlight the devastating human cost of the heroin epidemic, yet the gorgeous girls, fancy clothes, and expensive cars on display illustrate that the wages of sin can be pretty damned irresistible. If Barnes ultimately emerges as a heartless, duplicitous villain, he's nevertheless got the devil's slippery, seductive charm.