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Dec 5, 2009

Gangster Films: The Darker Side Of Drama

Gangster films have been showing viewers the dark and seedy side of life through cinema. The plots have tough characters hardened by a lives of crime. Violence and murder are the most commonly used tools to gain respect, power, and money. Gangster films depict criminal activity including drug dealing, robbery, extortion, murder for hire, racketeering, prostitution and human trafficking. Name any illicit business and it's probably been shown in gangster cinema. The darker side of life has always captivated film viewers. It might be because people have a choice to be a John Q. Citizen or a Public Enemy living outside of the law.

There are plenty of well researched books, articles, and documentaries about the place of the gangster story in world cinema. This article is the opposite of those. This is light reading and a conversation starter for gangster film fans that appreciate the role gritty crime stories have played in cinema.

Lighting up the big screen in the 30's was The Public Enemy starring James Cagney as Tom Powers and directed by William Wellman. This about a young gangster's rise in the criminal underworld during the murderous prohibition era. It has larger than life characters like a gangster's gangster Tom Powers and street hoodlum Putty Nose. A point of controversy for it's era was character Tom Powers smashing a grapefruit in his girlfriend's face.

Also coming out in that era was Little Caesar starring all time bad guy actor Edward G. Robinson as snarling psychopath Rico and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Little Caesar is the story of ambitious gangster Rico's rapid rise and fall in the criminal underworld. A interesting aspect is the main focus of the film is on the character flaws of Rico aka Little Caesar instead of the action going on around him. This film has been called the mother of modern crime cinema.

The Godfather and hardcore sequel The Godfather Part II directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-written by Coppola with best selling author Mario Puzo whose books the films are based on. The Godfather is one of Hollywood's all time best selling crime epics. It stars Marlon Brando as Mafia Chief Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. Too many big name stars to give a full cast list here. The Godfather tells the epic tale of a Mafia family taking roots and gaining power in America. It has stylized on screen violence that shows no matter the air of respect you try to promote when you're a gangster it still comes down to shedding blood to keep power.

Film audiences were given a whole new look with Scarface starring Al Pacino as Tony Montana and directed by Brian De Palma. Never has a cinema gangster become such a cultural icon. The character image of Tony Montana can be found on posters, shirts, and all kinds of items. This character captured the imagination of viewers across the world. Lines from this modern classic are massively quoted.

Scarface is the brutal depiction of the Miami cocaine business from the eyes of hungry Cuban deportee Tony Montana. The films brutal violence, explicit language and lack of good guy characters has made Scarface controversial and disliked by some film critics. In my opinion the language had to be explicit, the violence brutal, and forcing in a token good guy would have been BS. If you look into the Miami cocaine wars I don't think you'll find nice guy drug traffickers that are polite, non-violent, and working with orphans. It was a brutal world ran by brutal people. That's life.

Menace II Society starring Tyrin Turner as Caine and Larenz Tate as larger than life O-Dog was directed by The Hughes Brothers. This gangster film brought viewers into the rough and tumble streets of the inner city. This intense urban drama is about the struggles Caine deals with leaving in a housing project and selling drugs. One of the most realistic films I've watched. Everything about the story had heart.

Belly starring DMX as Buns and NAS as Sincere was directed by Hype Williams. This gangster film was a take on director Brian De Palma's Scarface. It was an urban epic that stretched from the mean streets of New York to the slums of Jamaica. Hype Williams did a great job with the look and direction of Belly. It had some intense shoot outs and action. The story is about the gangster lifestyle of drug dealing, armed robbery, and illicit money. Buns gets into some trouble that leads him into a life changing moment with the Nation of Islam. Sincere gets tired of the crime and is drawn to his African roots.

Empire starring John Leguizamo as drug dealer Victor Rosa and directed by Franc. Reyes. This gangster drama takes viewers into the world of the South Bronx. Director Franc. Reyes gave viewers a well done crime story that had some Latino flavor to it. John Leguizamo as Victor Rosa gave a stand out performance. He showed both a brutal and soft side. There is some really good action in this film. It had a shoot out between rival drug dealers that looked amazing. The story itself is about big time drug dealer Victor Rosa fighting with rival drug dealers for turf and wanting to get out of the game. A shady Wall Street investment banker offers Victor a chance to invest in a sure fire moneymaking deal. It looks to be Victor's way out. Turns out the Wall Street crook double crosses Victor making off with his all his money. Victor was fronted the cash by a Colombian Cartel. Now Victor has to get the money back or die himself.

Consignment starring newcomer Tim Beachum as smooth drug dealer Tommy Jones and rising Latino actor Ruben Navarro as crystal meth distributor Smiles. This urban gangster movie is a fast ride through the crystal meth business. It is a well done independent gangster film from Slice of Americana Films. The stand out is the realism in the way the story is told. The language and characters come across as authentic. Great to see Black, Latino, Asian, White, and Native-American characters represented. You don't see that mix in gangster movies today. Writer-Director Sid Kali shows some great street action in this one including many shootings. In this gangster story they did not shy away from showing nudity. Based on true events, Consignment is about Tommy Jones, a reluctant East Coast drug dealer on the run with his wife, Yolanda, after a rival kingpin's plan to have him ripped-off and murdered goes wrong. In need of fast cash to go straight, the pair head to California, where Tommy hooks up with his cousin, a reckless, hot-tempered drug dealer. Tommy quickly gets in over his head, and is forced to take a large shipment of crystal meth on consignment from a ruthless Latino gangster. Double-crosses, a series of brutal murders, and an old secret from his wife's past foils Tommy’s plans for a new start at life.

American Gangster starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe as Det. Richie Roberts and directed by Ridley Scott. This is a sweeping epic based on the true life of legendary drug kingpin Frank Lucas. It was great to see mainstream Hollywood back a big budget film about an urban gangster. Most big budget films involve the American Mafia. This one tackled the booming heroin trade happening in Harlem. It's a period piece that is perfect in every detail. Director Ridley Scott gives viewers some unforgettable scenes of violence. This powerful film will be an all time classic for years to come. The story itself is about the rise of Frank Lucas who was the right hand man of legend Bumpy Johnson. His power grew so much that he was the supplier of heroin to the New York Mafia. It also showed both types of police. The good and the corrupt.

I'm a gangster film fan. Hopefully talented filmmakers continue to expand the gangster genre. The world isn't an easy place to make your own way, but the struggle is what creates powerful drama. Visit Slice of Americana Films led by filmmaker Sid Kali for thrilling independent cinema and Video-On-Demand programs.
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