It's 1984 and Nancy Reagan is all over TV declaring that we should, "Just Say No!" to drugs. In Detroit, a cheap, new-fangled version of cocaine called crack is entering the market, tearing what's left of the social fabric to pieces and rocketing crime levels to all-new heights.
Elements of the municipal government are corrupt, from members of the police force right on up to the mayor's office. The FBI is recruiting informants from criminal circles in hopes of nailing the big players. The FBI is so desperate to corral the chaos that they bend the rules to the breaking point and convince a 14-year-old kid to become one of their stool pigeons. That kid is Rick Wershe, aka White Boy Rick, who's already playing at the edges of the city's underworld.
Wershe turns out to have a talent for the game, and in short order he becomes a hustling member of one of the city's most notorious gangs. His insider info leads to the arrests of bigger and bigger fish until it all blows up in his face when he's apprehended for dealing and put away for life.
Justice for a scuzzy lowlife who played the feds and made a mint? Or injustice for an underage informant who knew too much and paid the price? Wershe's real-life story plays out on the big screen as "White Boy Rick," starring Richie Merritt as Wershe and Matthew McConaughey as his dad. The story dives in for a closer look at the sorry tale of a teenager speeding in the fast-lane to the depths of Motor City.
"White Boy Rick" is part of a long tradition of gangster movies based on true events. Following, in alphabetical order, are 10 legendary examples of the mobster movie genre.
'Bandit Queen' 1994
It's hard to exaggerate the craziness of Phoolan Devi's life. The closest analogy would be the trajectory of Daenerys Targaryen in "Game of Thrones." Both are child brides sold to husbands they don't know, who then rise to leadership roles on the strength of their iron wills and wily smarts.
But there are some crucial differences: the first being that Devi's story is true. Second: The Bandit Queen, as Devi is also known, didn't start life as a princess. She was an impoverished, illiterate girl of 11 in Uttar Pradesh, India, when she was ripped from her mother's arms to marry a rapist more than 20 years her senior. Devi went on to endure unimaginable horrors until she was kidnapped by bandits.
Her kidnapping actually turned out to be a rare stroke of luck and the young woman took full advantage of it, eventually earning her place as the leader of the gang. Devi's legend spread across the subcontinent and at the height of her power in the 1990s, she was so famous that little girls in India treasured their "Devi Dolls."
"Bandit Queen," the movie version of Phoolan Devi's life starred Seema Biswas and was directed by Shekhar Kapur. Released in 1995, it was a critical and commercial hit. A stunning, ferociously realistic film, it's not for the faint of heart [source: Ebert].
'Bonnie and Clyde' 1967
When Warren Beatty tried to convince Warner Bros. to make a film out of the brief, brutal lives of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the studio balked. It might have been a true story, but the tale of two homicidal hoodlums and their gang rampaging through the Depression didn't sound like a good bet. In the end, however, Beatty prevailed and in 1967, the film, directed by Arthur Penn, won two Academy Awards.
Starring Beatty as Clyde and Faye Dunaway as Bonnie, it's considered by some to be one of the most influential movies of its era. The sex, violence and dark humor were ground-breaking at the time. But what really makes "Bonnie and Clyde" feel perpetually contemporary is its depiction of two charming, charismatic, media-hungry psychopaths introducing a new brand of celebrity killer to the American landscape.
Bonnie and Clyde didn't become famous by accident. They documented themselves with the portable hi-tech device of the time — a camera. Pre-Instagram era, the duo mailed their pics to the papers along with the ballads Bonnie wrote. They posed smiling with guns and cigars and the cops they captured.
The film is a not-so-exaggerated analogue for our own gun-loving, media-saturated era populated by social-media celebs who go to absurd lengths to be famous. We've all slipped down the rabbit hole Bonnie and Clyde dug nearly a century ago [source: Ebert].
'City of God' 2002
In most cities, the higher you go, the richer the occupants. Whether it's up a hillside or to the penthouse of a building, the view comes with a price tag. But not in Rio de Janeiro. There, due to historical circumstance, the impoverished sections of the city, known as favelas, are often perched precariously on the steep slopes above the wealthier quarters, which hug the coastline.
But in "City of God" nobody in the eponymous neighborhood has time to take in the vista — they're too busy trying to survive a vicious gang war waged by teenagers. The reason none of the gang members mature to adulthood is because they die too young.
Instead of toting a gun, the hero of the film, a boy named Rocket, picks up a camera and begins documenting the tragic violence around him. Rocket survives and his art becomes his ticket out of the favela.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles and based on true events, "City of God" stunned critics and audiences alike with its supple storytelling and vivid, vicious depiction of life on the street in the forgotten shanty towns of Rio [source: Corliss].
One of the oft-lamented problems with mob movies is that they have a habit of making gangster life look fun. There's all that money to start. Then there's often a fair dose of sex. And finally, the violence often looks thrilling and even glamorous. To go down in a hail of bullets like Sonny Corleone in "The Godfather," might be tragic, but it's also epic and unforgettable.
When "Gomorrah" was released in 2009, it was hailed by audiences and critics alike as a mob movie like no other because it revealed, instead, the grubby, stressful, awfulness of life lived in a gang-ridden city.
Based on a non-fiction book by the same name, "Gomorrah" explores the underbelly of Naples, Italy, where a mafia called the Camorra has a tentacular stranglehold on every corner of the town. There's no code of honor amongst the Camorra, no likeable psychos, no glamour. It's a story about how greed and corruption are petty, ruinous and wretched for everybody concerned [source: Morris].
Gritty, flashy, funny, cinematic gold, "GoodFellas" is Martin Scorsese's mob movie par excellence. The stylish, masterful filmmaking featured Scorsese's established palette of freeze frames and slo-mo, along with the much-discussed Steadicam shot that follows Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco across a street, through a backdoor, down a set of stairs, through a kitchen and into the dining room of the Copacabana nightclub.
Aside from its status as one of the longest single-take sequences in American film history, it's also a bravura set-piece that brilliantly illustrates the intoxicating appeal of being a made man. And it's just one of the many cinematic jewels offered up to the viewer in a movie studded with unforgettable scenes and brilliant performances. There's Robert DeNiro at the top of his game as the avuncular but ruthless Jimmy Conway and Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito, who demonstrates how to balance laughter and terror on a razor-sharp knife's edge.
Scorsese adapted "GoodFellas" from "Wise Guy," Nicholas Pileggi's account of the villainous career of Henry Hill (played in the film by Liotta), a guy who wanted in on the mob life from an early age. "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," is the legendary opening line. That desire inexorably diminishes over the course of three bruising decades until our anti-hero must make a life-or-death decision between survival and betrayal.
Some gangsters like to operate in the shadows; others court fame. Jacques Mesrine belonged to the latter group. Unlike most criminals, Mesrine came from a middle-class background and was a decent, if disruptive, student in his youth.
But a tour as a French soldier during the French-Algerian War seems to have tipped him over into a life of crime. The French-Algerian conflict was at least as horrific as the Vietnam War and Mesrine later alleged that he was charged with executing prisoners of war. Once out of the army, Mesrine tried conventional life for a bit but soon drifted into a career as France's most notorious bank robber, kidnapper, murderer and escape artist, eventually earning the title of France's Public Enemy No. 1.
In between busting out of multiple prisons (including France's supposedly escape-proof La Santé), he penned his life story, such that it's hard to know where the real life ends and the legend begins. But there's no doubt that before he was gunned down by Parisian cops in 1979, Mesrine had racked up an extraordinary criminal resume [source: Bradshaw].
A life lived this large couldn't be squeezed into a single film, so director Jean-François Richet tells it in two parts. Vincent Cassel's blistering portrayal of the master criminal earned him rave reviews and helped establish the bio-pic as an instant classic of the gangster genre.
'Pigs and Battleships' 1961
Yakuza. The name of Japan's infamous mafia evokes images of the hyper-cool gangsters depicted in films like "Sonatine." But the hoods that populate "Pigs and Battleships", one of the very first yakuza movies ever made, are anything but cool. They're a crew of bumbling, crude, venal, wingnuts trying to make a buck in post-war Japan.
A satirical look at the relationship between a U.S. Naval base and the ordinary Japanese people trying to survive in its environs, "Pigs and Battleships" has long been considered a classic of the mobster genre. But few such films tread the line between slapstick melodrama and hard-nosed realism so extraordinarily well.
Take, for instance, the fact that a major plot point revolves around acquiring the slops from the naval base to feed black market pigs. Yet this farcical narrative is gorgeously filmed in rich black and white and framed as though it's an epic Hollywood work from the '50s. The heightened contrast between form and content is part of what makes director Shohei Imamura's masterpiece one of a kind [source: Canby].
Salvatore Giuliano is famously absent from the movie that bears his name, except in the form of a handsome corpse. From the discovery of his body, the film moves backward and forward in time to explore the events surrounding his rise and fall as one of the most notorious of all Sicilian bandits.
In the wake of the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War II, Giuliano was arrested for black marketeering. The truth was that without the black market, nobody would have survived in Sicily in that era. But Giuliano soon embarked on a full-blown life of banditry, robbing and kidnapping the wealthy while maintaining a close alliance with the peasantry from which he came. There's also some evidence that he did dirty work for local politicians.
Was he a true Robin Hood who helped impoverished Sicilians whenever he could? Or a stooge for the establishment, hired to keep a rising left-wing movement in line? Director Francesco Rosi's tour-de-force of sweeping realist filmmaking never answers that question but makes it the core around which the entire narrative turns.
The film's breathtaking vistas and tense set-pieces make for a beautifully composed work that infuses the gangster genre with passionate artistry and a questing political analysis.
'The General' 1998
Martin Cahill, aka "The General," was an Irish gangster who enjoyed cult status thanks to his outrageous feats of thievery, which included ransacking a police station weapons cache. Besides the usual fare of bank robberies and jewelry store break-ins, Cahill also had a taste for high art and is remembered for burglarizing some of the most expensive paintings in the world, including the only Vermeer in a private collection.
Cahill also wasn't averse to violence. When Dr. James O'Donovan made sophisticated forensic science techniques standard practice in Irish law enforcement, Cahill car-bombed him. O'Donovan survived but was physically disabled for life.
Cahill liked to break into the houses of the rich and in one such burglary, he purloined an award belonging to a famous movie director. The director was Englishman John Boorman and the award was for his most famous work, "Deliverance." It's unlikely that Cahill suspected that by putting himself on Boorman's radar he assured himself cinematic immortality years after he was gunned down in 1994 by an unknown hit man [source: Elley].
Boorman, the famed director of "Point Blank," "Excalibur," "Hope and Glory" and, of course, "Deliverance," revived his career with an energetic, beautiful black and white biopic of Cahill. Anchoring the movie is a breakout performance by the great Brendan Gleeson as The General himself.
'White Heat' 1949
Ma Barker was reputed to be the matriarch of the Barker Gang, a notorious collection of thieves, kidnappers and murderers in the Midwest U.S., many of whom happened to be her sons. She died next to one of them after a police siege that riddled their hideout with bullets.
When Hollywood got around to memorializing the story in celluloid, they condensed her collection of offspring into a single, incandescent, oedipal, psychopath, re-christened Cody Jarrett. Then it was just a matter of convincing the one actor who could do justice to the role to come onboard. Jimmy Cagney had long since left behind the gangster films that made him famous. In fact, so had Hollywood. A stifling production code and waning audience interest had more or less squelched the genre.
But in 1949, the time seemed right for a reboot. And Cagney, whose star was fading, needed a hit. It turned out to be the perfect fit. Under Raoul Walsh's direction, Cagney burned up the screen as the doomed villain. Playing ice to his fire, the great Margaret Wycherly as "Ma" Jarrett helped establish "White Heat" as one of the greatest gangster movies of them all [source: Parkinson].
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Author's Note: 10 Mob Movies Inspired by True Events
When it comes to gangster movies, it's impossible to put together one that doesn't leave more out than it includes. In putting together this collection, I wanted some of the usual suspects, like "GoodFellas," because, well, they deserve to be here. But I also thought it would be good to add in a few, like "Bandit Queen" that have faded from view and shouldn't be forgotten.
More Great Links
- Benson, Sheila. "'GoodFellas': Meaner Streets." LA Times. Sept. 19, 1990. (Sept. 5, 2018) http://articles.latimes.com/1990-09-19/entertainment/ca-807_1_wise-guys
- Bradshaw, Peter. "Mesrine: Killer Instinct." The Guardian. Aug. 7, 2009. (Sept. 5, 2018) https://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/aug/07/mesrine-killer-instinct-film
- Bradshaw, Peter. "Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One." The Guardian. Aug. 28, 2009. (Sept. 5, 2018) https://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/aug/28/mesrine-public-enemy-review
- Canby, Vincent. "Imamura's 'Pigs and Battleships." The New York Times. 1986. (Sept. 6, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/09/movies/film-imamura-s-pigs-and-battleships.html
- Click On Detroit. "The Story of White Boy Rick." (September 3, 2018) https://www.clickondetroit.com/white-boy-rick
- Corliss, Richard. "Gangs of Rio de Janeiro." Time. Jan. 15, 2003. (Sept. 4, 2018) http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101030120-407332,00.html
- Debruge, Peter. "Telluride Film Review: 'White Boy Rick.'" Variety. Sep. 1, 2018. (Sep. 3, 2018) https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/white-boy-rick-review-matthew-mcconaughey-1202923714/
- Ebert, Roger. "Bandit Queen." Roger Ebert.com July 14, 1995. (Sept. 3, 2018) https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/bandit-queen-1995
- Ebert, Roger. "Bonnie and Clyde." Sept. 25, 1967. (Sept. 3, 2018) https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/bonnie-and-clyde-1967
- Elley, Derek. "The General – Biopic Captures Irish Crime Lord." Variety. May 25, 1998. (Sept. 6, 2018) https://variety.com/1998/film/reviews/the-general-biopic-captures-irish-crime-lord-1200453540/
- Morris, Wesley. "Gomorrah." Boston Globe. Feb. 27, 2009. (Sept. 4, 2018) http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2009/02/27/stranglehold/
- Parkinson, David. "White Heat Review." Empire. Jan. 1, 2000. (Sept. 6, 2018) https://www.empireonline.com/movies/white-heat/review/
- Variety Staff. "Review of Salvatore Giuliano." Variety. March 26, 2008. (Sept. 6, 2018)
- Warner Bros. "Bonnie and Clyde." (Sept. 3, 2018) https://www.warnerbros.com/bonnie-and-clyde