A Journey Into the World of Crime Cinema – By Josh Samford

You
know, when you really think about it, how die hard of a fanbase do
crime films have? To my knowledge, despite it being a varied genre that
runs the gamut in terms of style and influence, those who would tout
off to be the most sincere of ‘fans’ are usually the most mainstream of
movie fans. This is particularly the case when we are talking about
American films and American fans. Chances are your uncle, father,
friend or any other red-blooded male close to you considers himself to
be a ‘mafia movie fan’, and trust me that already makes them cooler
than your average, but there’s even more to the genre of blood and
bullets. Like most American kids, my love of crime cinema started with
the Mafia. I was a pretty odd kid to say the least. I used to play
pretend with my friends but instead of being war heroes or adventurers,
I would be "Lucky" Luciano and my friends would be Al Capone and Carlos
Marcello. It all started when a friend introduced me to Martin
Scorsese’s Goodfellas and I fell in love. I don’t know what it was
particularly that instantly drew me in. I was a violent kid for sure,
but at that time I was still scared of gory horror movies. Goodfellas
had a brutal violence to it that wasn’t necessarily sickening or
disturbing to me at the time. It was the style, I think. I was of
course too young to realize this, but looking back, the stylistic
choices and operatic style of the film had to have been what saved me.
From there I went through all of the classics, The Godfather series
being the next big steps. The first two of course being the films with
the most impact, and to tell the truth, I didn’t even see the third
film until years later. The Godfather actually remained my favorite
film for many years, and eventually I caught two films in the same year
that probably changed me for life. Casino (also from Martin Scorsese)
and Scarface (Brian De Palma). I wasn’t immediately intrigued by either
film, no, it was quite the contrary. Whereas I think that the operatic
and classy style of the violence within Goodfellas helped hook me in,
it was the gritty and horrific blood and death of Casino and Scarface
that really made me evaluate things a little closer. Both films scared
me away from violence for at least a year. I wouldn’t even watch a
zombie movie on television anymore. As time has went by, I’ve come to
appreciate what those two films did for me. Any film that can create
that kind of hysteria in it’s viewer is going above and beyond the call
for a simple ‘movie’. Now, about ten years later, I count both of those
films as two of my favorite crime films of all time – and I couldn’t be
more grateful for them.

In
between those films, these classics, there were so many other great
films that filled my time and helped develop my tastes as a young man
(and doesn’t that sounds pretentious?). The nineties brought about a
whole new wave of crime film, no doubt ushered in by Quentin Tarantino
and his post-modernist ways. With dialogue and stylistic flare taking
an even more prominent role, and the Italian Mafia taking an even less
important role along the way (life imitating art, as organized crime
was cracked down upon more and more). Pulp Fiction will always be the
top film of this era, but in my opinion very few films get to the heart
of the ‘crime’ film like Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino’s introduction to
the cinematic world. It may have it’s problems, and it may borrow
heavily from other films (I won’t even go into the discussion about
Ringo Lam’s City on Fire), but Reservoir Dogs
tackles the genre with respect and builds upon what came before it.
Pulp Fiction does much of the same, but instead of just layering blocks
upon the traditional, it chose to tear down the wall and start anew.
Regardless, this tale of a jewelry heist gone wrong is indeed one of my
favorite films of all time and has never left my top-ten list since
having seen it so many years ago. With Tarantino’s rise the resurgence
of the crime film almost seemed overnight, and this is where I differ
from a lot of movie geeks, because unlike some I actually think a lot
of the films that were labeled ‘immitators’ really aren’t so bad. The
most popular of these films, and indeed the best among them, would
probably be Boondock Saints (though it’s debatable whether The Usual
Suspects is considered an ‘immitator’, but it is a brilliant film that
I sadly don’t get much time to discuss). Boondock gets this label
often, when it’s probably not even fair that it does as I’ve heard the
script was completed sometime during the production of Pulp Fiction.
So, the timing doesn’t really match up for it to be a simple ripoff,
but some people just won’t be convinced. What makes Boondock Saints so
exceptional and such a standout film amongst the plethora of other
movies released during the time is it’s willingness to simply have fun.
Some people like to dig a little too deep in the metaphorical and take
the morality juxtapositions of the film far too serious in my opinion,
when you can simply watch the film and tell that it was made purely for
entertainment. Sure, it may give you a case of the ‘deep-thoughts’ if
you allow it, but generally, this is all about fun – and fun it does
provide. Rarely will you run into someone who doesn’t fall in love with
the film upon first viewing, because really, it’s just that lovable.
Quirky characters, hilarious dialogue and great action – a simple but
completely effective formula. There were also films from this period
that sadly not everyone seemed to enjoy. Two films particularly come to
mind; Suicide Kings and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.
Suicide Kings is a fairly love it or hate it tale of a kidnapping gone
bad. Sometimes it’s irreverent and witty, other times… not so much.
Things to Do in Denver on the other hand is one of those gems I find
rarely get their due. I’m not going to go off and say it’s brilliant or
anything more than thoughtful entertainment, but there’s something
special about it and it pains me that most everyone else doesn’t see
it. The dialogue is spiced up from more than just a series of
pop-culture references and takes on something mythical with the writer
creating his own version of street-talk by creating his own slang for
his characters. This, added with some of the strangest and most
interesting characters to come out of this phase in time (including
characters named Mr. Shhh, Critical Bill and The Man With the Plan)
makes it the sort of flick that even if you don’t end up liking it –
you’re bound to remember it.

While this new phase of crime film was developing, interesting things
were happening outside of it as well. Brian De Palma returned to the
crime genre with Al Pacino to create the underrated Carlito’s Way,
being just one of the highlights. Carlito’s Way may not stack the cards
high with originality (a ex-con trying to go straight isn’t the most
inventive way to start a film) but what makes it so amazing is it’s
poetic charm. Unlike the brutal horror of Scarface, Carlito’s Way is
partially a film about romance and love. Unlike Tony Montanna, Carlito
Brigante actually is a decent guy. I think someone once said Brigante
could have been the man Montanna might have become if he had learned
his lessons, and with the history provided in the film, it seems fairly
believable. There’s a rhythm to Carlito’s Way that isn’t found in many
films I’ve seen, something that moves the film at all times and even
seeps into the dialogue. There’s a steady pace that keeps consistent
the whole way through, and that’s only the start of it’s unexplainably
great qualities. Abel Ferrara also started making some interesting
detours in the genre with his King of New York and Bad Liutenant. The
former being a story of what would happen if Robin Hood were ruthless
in his pursuit of making things right amongst the poorest of his people
and the latter being the story of a cop who goes so far over the edge
that he sees no way back – and desperately seeks redemption. Both films
are intriguing in their own ways. King of New York is undoubtedly the
more popular and strictly ‘crime’ in it’s execution, but I’m not so
sure if it’s the better film. Granted, both movies are pretty far from
being mainstream-friendly, but Bad Liuetenant pushes buttons most
didn’t even know existed – and in the end has a more positive message
than most Disney films. Well, that may be pushing it, but if you
haven’t seen it, I can guarantee you’ve never seen the act of
redemption handled in such a way as it is in Bad Liuetenant.

Some
of these films mentioned I’ve just discovered in the past year or two,
some I’ve re-discovered, but amongst my most recent ventures into crime
cinema my main interest of course lies with what the Asians are doing.
I can’t help it, you know me, I’m a sucker for the foreign market. The
Japanese have been quite successful with their tales of crime and the
Yakuza since the early seventies, when directors like kinji fukasaku
and Seijin Suzuki started doing things with the genre that have rarely
been duplicated. This day that same adventurous spirit lives on with
filmmakers like Takashi Miike, Toshiaki Toyoda, Takeshi Kitano and
Rokuro Mochizuki. My first experience with the Japanese crime scene
would probably have been through Takeshi Kitano. It’s been so long now
I forget exactly what the first film I had seen from him was, but I’m
almost certain it was his first directorial film Violent Cop. Known as
a funnyman in his home country, Kitano’s films are rarely all that
humorous and when they are, the laughs are usually bleak. Violent Cop
is his most nihilistic and dark film, creating a circle of perpetuating
violence and chaos circled around a police officer who will do
absolutely anything it takes to break a case – including beating up
teens and torturing whoever he has to go through. The violence is
brutal and comes from out of nowhere, which has since become a staple
of his work. Kitano has directed many classics of the genre, including
Sonatine, Kids Return (a coming-of-age film set amongst boxing and the
Yakuza), Hana-Bi and Boiling point but if I have to choose one film
that carries all of his inspiration and message – that will always be
Sonatine. Everything Kitano ever wanted to say about the life of crime
or the Yakuza in general is said in that film. My second exposure to
the Japanese take on this familiar of subjects was with Takashi Miike’s
Dead or Alive series. The first film is about as haywire a departure as
you’re going to find, but still remains incredibly loyal to the
dominating themes and caricatures of the genre – mainly because, if you
want my opinion, in some ways it’s a spoof of the crime genre. A
respectable spoof that you probably wouldn’t consider to be making
light of the events, but a spoof none the less. By taking your average
standoff finale and pushing the scales into something truly monolithic
Takashi Miike created a conclusion that simply, no matter how hard
anyone might try, could never be topped. In sheer size, it truly was
the most explosive finale ever.That’s a pun mind you, if you’ve seen
the film you’ll probably get it. I remember forcing my cousin to sit
and watch the film with me and he fell asleep only moments before the
ending, and after watching I woke him up with my laughing. Then only
had to rewind the last five minutes for him to actually see the whole
conclusion. There’s something to be said about that. Now that I’ve been
experimenting in this subgenre for a few years now I keep thinking I’ve
seen just about all the corners Japan can show me – but I keep growing
pleasantly surprised. Whether by Toshiaki Toyoda’s amazing display of
youth gangs in his films or by Rokuro Mochizuki simply destroying the
confines of genre standards. I keep coming back and will no doubt
continue to do so.

Even after saying all of this there’s still so much to talk about. The
golden age of Hollywood with their amazing (and still provocative)
tackling of the underworld. Films such as White Heat, Angels With Dirty
Faces and Little Caesar simply have to be mentioned if I’m to get a
good night’s rest. Then there’s Hong Kong and their Heroic Bloodshed
subgenre, which helped spawn such masters of blood action as Ringo Lam,
John Woo and Johnny To. Still, there’s only so much I can say without
sitting down for another two hours to continue my writing. I can’t
explain just what it is that makes the crime genre so enthralling, not
to someone who doesn’t understand. Maybe it has something to do with
our natural instinct to want to cheer on the bad guys, or our wanting
to take part in something more exciting than just a regular story about
regular people, I don’t know. Maybe it’s something more dark, but
whatever it is, I don’t fear it. I’m here because of crime films,
there’s no getting past it. They helped shape me into the film fan that
I am, and hopefully some of this countless name-dropping will have
pursued one or two people to check out any of the previously mentioned
films – for that I can only hope.