Gangster Movies Past & Present

Gangster movies have been showing the dark and seedy side of life to viewers for years. The stories have tough characters hardened by a life of crime. Violence and murder are the most commonly used tools to gain respect, power, and money. Gangster movies show a rainbow of criminal activity like drug dealing, robbery, extortion, murder for hire, racketeering, and human trafficking. Name an illicit business and it’s probably been shown in a gangster movie. The darker side of life has always captivated some movie viewers. It might be because everyone has a choice to be a John Q. Citizen or a Public Enemy outside of the law.

There are plenty of well researched books, articles, and documentaries about the place of the gangster in movie history. This article is the opposite of those. It’s a light snack for the gangster movie buff that wants something that’s not filling and easy to digest.

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 gangsters rise in the criminal underworld during the murderous prohibition era. Aside from the fact it is a hard boiled story and social commentary it has some 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 (1931) starring all time bag guy actor Edward G. Robinson as snarling psychopath Rico and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Little Caesar is story of ambitious gangster Rico’s rapid rise and fall in the criminal underworld. The cool thing is the focus of the movie is on the character flaws of Rico aka Little Caesar instead of the action going on around him. This movie has been called the mother of modern gangster movies.

The Godfather (1972) and hardcore sequel The Godfather, Part II (1974) directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-written by Coppola and best selling author Mario Puzo who’s books the movies are based on is one of Hollywood’s all time best selling gangster movies. 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.

Movie audiences were given a whole new look with Scarface (1983) starring Al Pacino as Tony Montana and directed by Brian De Palma. Never has a movie gangster become such an icon. The image of Tony Montana can be found on posters, shirts, and all kinds of items. The 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 movies brutal violence, explicit language and lack of good guy characters has made Scarface controversial and disliked by some movie critics. In my opinion the language had to be explicit, the violence brutal, and characters shown that lacked good guy qualities. If you look into that time during the Cocaine Cowboy Wars I don’t think these drug traffickers were polite, non-violent, and working with orphans. It was a brutal world ran by brutal people.

Menace II Society (1993) starring Tyrin Turner as Caine and Larenz Tate as larger than life O-Dog was directed by The Hughes Brothers. This gangster movie brought viewers into the rough and tumble streets of the inner city. This intense urban drama is about the struggles Caine delas with leaving in a housing project and selling drugs. One of the most realistic movie based on the inner city. Everything about the story had heart. Belly (1998) starring DMX as Buns and NAS as Sincere was directed by Hype Williams. This gangster movie 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 awesome shoot outs and action. It was a large scale movie that rivals some of the biggest Hollywood crime movies in style. The story is about the gangster lifestyle of drug dealing, armed robbery, and illicit money Buns and Sincere are deep into. 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 (2002) starring John Leguizamo as drug dealer Victor Rosa and directed by Franc. Reyes. This gangster movie takes viewers into the world of the South Bronx. Director Franc. Reyes gave viewers a well done gangster movie that had some Latino flavor to it. John Leguizamo as Victor Rosa gave a stand out performance in this role. He showed both a brutal and soft side. There is some really good action in this movie. 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. That money Victor got came from a Colombian Cartel. Now Victor has to get the money back or die himself.

Consignment (2007) starring Tim Beachum as smooth drug dealer Tommy Jones and Ruben Navarro as crystal meth distributor Smiles is directed by Sid Kali. This urban gangster movie is a fast ride through the crystal meth business. It is a well done independent gangster movie. 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. Director Sid Kali shows some great street action in this one including many shootings. In this gangster movie 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 (2007) 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 movie about an urban gangster. Most big budget movies 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 gangster movie 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. It was a great story about the real goings on in the world.