Modern Day Mob in Film
We’re going to introduce you to another style post that we will be writing occasionally. We will be writing a “Thoughts on” post, giving you our… well, thoughts on a certain topic. That topic will usually coincide with the release of a new movie. For example, we could have written a post about our thoughts on Christopher Nolan films the day Inception came out. These columns are intended to give you, the reader, more than just straight forward review on a movie. Its a review of an entire subject, topic or genre.
This week, coinciding with the release of The Family, starring Robert DeNiro, we will be discussing our thoughts on 21st century mob films, and how they may differ from older type of mob films.
Trailer for The Family (which we will not be reviewing)
Mob films are among the most popular and developed genres of all time, because of their intensity and rambunctiousness, as well as how they provide pure entertainment and an engaging story. They are also straight up bad-ass. All this has contributed to the well-documented growth in these types of films, the most recent generation being our topic of discussion for this week.
From the original Scarface to The Godfather to The Departed, the mafia-mobster genre has seen change in all sorts of form. Pre-1934 films were very violent and very gruesome (for the time). Then in 1934, strict censorship was enacted, prohibiting movies from displaying such violence (among other things). 40’s and 50’s mob films weren’t as bold, primarily due to the inability to have such extreme violence. The Roaring Twenties, and On The Waterfront, our review from last week, are examples of this. Then, as cinema became more violent thanks to Bonnie and Clyde, so did the mobsters. The 70’s through early 90’s brought classics such as The Godfather, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction and Scarface. These films were bolder, bigger and therefore more appealing to audiences. That brings us to the main feature.With Coppola’s trilogy concluded, Tarantino slowly turning away from the genre, and Scorsese going towards the new style of mob films (with Gangs of New York & The Departed), the classical grittiness and style started to disappear, and we began to see films more driven by plot, including Road to Perdition, Gangster Squad, and of course, The Departed. These films relied more on the story, whereas Scorsese films, for example, were more character driven. The stories were centered on the characters, and their life. There was no real “plot”, and clearly, it worked out just fine.
The new era of mob film also brought a whole other perspective to the story: justice. In the Coppola-Scorsese era, law enforcement never played a huge role. Movies were more focused on strife between and within the mob and conflicts within the protagonists’ own mind and heart. Obviously, FBI and CIA weren’t completely irrelevant, it just wasn’t as crucial to the conflict. Yet, now, in popular movies such as American Gangster and The Departed, laws enforcement were essentially one entire half to the story. Why exactly is this; is it because American culture calls for justice? Or because the good guy versus bad guy is more intriguing. Clearly there is something attractive about this to American audiences, even if these movies have not been as high quality as the classic films discussed earlier.
I would feel awful going a whole post about modern mafia on the screen and not even mentioning The Sopranos, being the beautiful work of art that it is. It’s very similar to the earlier era of films, as it deals with Tony Soprano dealing with conflicts within his own family, and his crime organization. Being a TV show set in modern times, it obviously has a more modern feel to it, in addition to having the problem of law enforcement (though not the main conflict). It’s a lot different, being a TV series, but still important to the discussion concerning the mob genre.
With the release of The Family this weekend, the modern mafia film has reached a new frontier; comedy. This genre has been forever growing and developing since the times of On The Waterfront, a mob movie that highlights corruption without using violence or language, to Casino, a mob movie that ranks fifth all time in uses of the f bomb. And joining the affinity for the mob is the 21st century, which has taken its own spin on the genre, shaped by the ever-changing American culture.
Who says the mob’s dead? What about crime is so damn fascinating to us? Is it just how cool it is that there’s a whole secret society out there that (In our mind’s eye) wears suits, woos women and has some sort of complex code? I think there’s something to that but there’s still something deeper. What I think is so interesting is that, in this modern day and age, there’s still violence. There are still shootouts and rivalries. There are still informants to be whacked and associates to be met. And the thing is, it’s all under everybody’s nose. It’s funny how when you’re in a city there could be some of the criminal business which seemed so distant going on a mile away. In this polished day and age, it’s good to look at what lies under our seemingly safer society. So that’s what makes the gritty mob movies of today so good. They can give us an insightful look on the comings and goings of the everyday outlaw. Hollywood can do it, and they can do it well, so let’s look at some examples:
We’ll start off with American Gangster (2007), in which we get to see Denzel Washington rise as a drug lord in late 20th-century New York. Overall, I like Gangster. A lot of films try to emulate the structure of Goodfellas and The Godfather by making it a long sort-of epic. The formula is we see the start, the prosperity, and the fall. Rinse and repeat. American Gangster may use that formula but it has enough going on to use it to its advantage. It tells the story of a regular man descending into the depths of the drug world; going so far as Cambodia to do so. In a lot of cases, story is everything. But in the case of film, story does not have to be everything. It’s a huge part but there are plenty of other factors. Gangster is clunky with its focus in scenes but the acting really gets you into it. There were times when Denzel Washington played the competence of Frank Lucas so well. The soundtrack also mixes some of the more modern rap of the 2000’s with the 70’s so well in a way that Gatsby tried to but couldn’t.
Next off is a two-fer. The Town and The Departed. There’s a reason I pair these two together. They’re both cover similar ground, after all. Both are great at show the grit of Boston as a perfect backdrop to the characters. Both have an all-star cast. When I was putting together my top 5, I was very tempted to include The Town somehow. But one thing always draws me to The Departed over The Town. The Town often feels like it has too much story. Not meaning it drags, meaning it feels very direct at times. The Departed always feels like you don’t know when it’s going to end. You feel just like Costigan does. It feels like a terrible ride that won’t quit. I saw no real buildup in it, just a number of close calls. The Town, you know something’s going to happen with the heist and you know how the FBI and Irish-mob are going to collide. And the ending is far too happy for my taste (Hate to sound so down), it’s not happy but “oh he went to Florida”. That feels too Disney. The Departed ended with a couple of dead men at the close of a war everyone lost. That’s not to say The Town is bad, I love how it pulls off everything and captures certain elements so well. But overall, a film should try and emulate The Departed as an exemplar for a modern crime-drama.
I wish I could write about a few more modern dramas but that’s all we have for today, folks. This week The Family opens up so we’ll just have to see how that shows the wonderful world of the criminal underworld. Happy travels! Just keep off the streets of Boston and the Bronx…