In the 1950s, the decade when I was a kid, the popularity of the gangster movie genre was fueled by real-life headlines and the success of TV’s THE UNTOUCHABLES. In the ‘60s, movie hoods were briefly overshadowed by the Bond craze: even when emissaries of the American Mafia appeared in the 007 movie universe in GOLDFINGER, they were simply there to support the title mastermind’s criminal enterprise. Arguably, the notoriety of 1967’s POINT BLANK and BONNIE AND CLYDE whetted the public’s appetite for a modern era of mob films; the epic popularity of THE GODFATHER followed.
SCARFACE and GOODFELLAS were the hallmark gangster movies of the ‘80s, followed in the mid-’90s by PULP FICTION and its imitators. Tarantino’s style continued to influence moviemakers into the 2000s, if Guy Ritchie, SMOKIN’ ACES, LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN, and BOONDOCK SAINTS are any indication. Ritchie’s ROCKnROLLA (2008) may have been the last gasp of the jokey, time-twisting Tarantino approach to mobster narrative, at least for now. I have a feeling that we’ll experience a wave of new Tarantino imitations in the next couple of years, in the form of emerging thirty-five-ish writers and directors who saw PULP FICTION at the impressionable age of 12 or 13.
I watched a bunch of new -- that is, post-2010 -- gangster films recently. On the whole, they were varied in setting and approach, but all were comfortably (or uncomfortably, depending on your fondness for what some would call genre conventions; others, cliches) rooted in classic traditions.
KILL THE IRISHMAN (2011) and THE ICEMAN (2013) purport to be based on true stories from the 1970s. The Irishman, Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), rises from Cleveland dockworker to money-making Mafia associate by impressing the local mob, then incurs their wrath when he turns informant for the FBI. The Iceman, Richard Kuklinski, follows a similar trajectory: he becomes a hit man for Roy DeMeo’s Brooklyn crew, then becomes too enterprising for the paranoid DeMeo’s comfort.
THE ICEMAN is the stronger movie, thanks to Michael Shannon’s performance as Kuklinski and edgy support by an unrecognizable Chris Evans as fellow killer Robert Pronge. Both movies tip their hats to their cinematic predecessors by central casting of supporting roles from mob movies and shows past: Ray Liotta and Robert Davi in THE ICEMAN, Paul Sorvino, Vinnie Jones, Christopher Walken, Steve Schirripa,and Tony LoBianco in KILL THE IRISHMAN.
Walken and Al Pacino are aging mobsters in STAND UP GUYS (2012); maybe more precisely stated, they play Walken and Pacino playing mobsters. Walken’s boss forces Walken to take a contract on his old friend Pacino when Pacino is released from prison. The plot is predictable, but then that’s the point of casting iconic actors by type, isn’t it?
Walter Hill’s BULLET TO THE HEAD (2013), based on a graphic novel, teams Sylvester Stallone as a hit man with a Washington, D.C., Asian-American detective (Taylor Kwon) to bust a ring of mobsters and power brokers in New Orleans. I’ve never quite shared many critics’ fondness for Hill. I’m not sure who the real auteur here is supposed to be, him or Stallone, although the movie repeats motifs from Hill’s past movies, 48 HRS and RED HEAT. As the evil mob henchman, in a role that calls for the heft of a modern Jack Palance or Ernest Borgnine, Jason Mamoa is as empty of charisma as he was in the 2011 remake of CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Kwon’s cop wins a prize for stupidity as he continues to trust the New Orleans PD after it becomes painfully clear that they are in the bad guys’ pockets.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2013), based on George V. Higgins’ COGAN’S TRADE, updates Higgins’ 1974 setting to 2008. As politicians attempt to stabilize the collapsing American economy in TV clips of Bush and Obama that play in the background of several scenes, the Boston mob tries to stabilize their local criminal economy by finding and executing two gunmen who robbed a mob-protected card game. I rather liked the style of the film, which punctuates long, conversation-driven scenes with sudden bursts of brutal violence. The best single visual is a shot of a shivering little stolen chihuahua on a leash, looking up at the two gunmen on a bleak street corner as they plan their ill-fated holdup.
I haven’t read the Higgins novel, so I don’t know how he described his hit man character, Jackie Cogan; Brad Pitt gives it a heartfelt try, but I kept thinking how much more believable Lee Marvin or Henry Silva would have been. Ray Liotta is in this one too as a hapless hood, and the late James Gandolfini as another hit man; come to think of it, Gandolfini should have played Cogan, and Pitt should have played his role. I think there is a homage to David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET when “Love Letters,” the old Ketty Lester ballad, plays in the background of a slow-motion scene of a rub-out.
Tom Hardy anchors LAWLESS (2012) as a moonshiner in the Blue Ridge in the 1930s in another “based on a true story’ script. The film starts well, with Guy Pearce suitably nasty as a crooked Revenue agent in a role that seems to combine Richard Widmark’s and Patrick McGoohan’s characters from the 1969 movie version of Elmore Leonard’s THE MOONSHINE WAR. But the ending collapses into a far-fetched, over-the-top shootout between the bootleggers and the law; less would have been better.
VIVA RIVA! (2010) has the most exotic location of the recent gang movies: Kinshasa, the capital of the Republic of Congo, where go-getter Riva hijacks a valuable cargo of gasoline the way the 1930s gangsters hijacked shipments of booze. This does not sit well with the local boss, Azor. The setting may be modern urban Africa, but Riva -- like the Irishman and the Iceman -- follows a pattern that goes back at least to James Cagney’s Tom Powers and Edward G. Robinson’s Rico Bandello, eighty years ago: “a steady upward progress followed by a very precipitate fall,” in Robert Warshow’s words. Warshow wrote his essay on the movie gangster in 1948; I don’t know whether he would have been surprised or reassured that, 65 years later, today’s productions continue to ply the same formula.
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