Total Recall

Total Recall: American Gangster's Paradise

Re-discovering the cinema of organized crime.

by | October 31, 2007 | Comments

This week,
Ridley Scott‘s
American Gangster
Russell Crowe and
Denzel Washington hits theaters. With its story of a drug
kingpin and the cop who’s trying to take him down, we at Rotten Tomatoes thought
it would be a good time to delve into some flicks about organized crime you may
have missed.

Organized crime figures have long been some of cinema’s
greatest antiheros. Since the earliest days of sound, gangsters have appealed to
the dark side of audiences, especially since the bad guys are more colorful,
witty, and beholden to codes of honor than the milquetoast “good guys.” Some
films (most notably The Godfather, 100 percent on the Tomatometer) have
had a profound influence on the public’s ideas of the mafia (and mobsters

From the 1910s to the 1920s, "swiped from the
headlines" crime dramas were huge. Scandalous to audiences and censors, these
salacious two and three reel films exposed the plight of pushers, bootleggers
and sex slaves without the banner of the "newsreel" to redeem them. By the sound
era, crime dramas didn’t rely as extensively on the framework of "true stories"
but did sometimes justify their graphic content with socially cautious
introductions. William Wellman’s 1931 masterpiece
The Public Enemy

(100 percent)
introduces its story with outright public service. How better to validate the
sex, bootlegging and gun fighting than to root it in immigration stress and
social woe and then ask the audience, "What will you do about it?"

The Public Enemy balances indignities (remember the
famous grapefruit smashing?) with the ‘business’ of tommy gun stand offs and
even sprinkles the occasional bit of humor into the violence to muddy the moral
waters (amidst gunfire: "I can’t hear you, can you speak-a up?"). Wellman’s
creative use of sound heightens the effects of off-screen sex and violence
(listen for the giggling in the bedroom when Tom Powers [James Cagney] tells his
live-in girlfriend "I wish you was a wishing well ") and the use of screams and
gunfire in Power’s famous retribution scene. The Public Enemy is one of
the best displays of heartbreaking violence you’ll find, so much so that the
censors were stoking coals when this film came out. Though it made overtures
toward a socially redeeming message, the graphic brutality and overt sexual
charge of The Public Enemy would be one of many factors in the
establishment of the1934 Production Code. "James Cagney’s portrayal of a
bootlegging runt is truly electrifying, and Jean Harlow makes the tartiest tart
imaginable," wrote Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader.

As the decades progressed, the French also carved out their niche in the genre. Director
Jules Dassin was one of the hundreds of named
names during the Hollywood blacklist. Dassin — who had directed classic noirs
like The Naked City
(92 percent) and Brute Force
(80 percent) by time he was routed — was only briefly a
member of the Communist Party, but enough to send him into French exile. But you
know how international directors usually do their worst work when they start working in Hollywood?  Reversing the formula also seems to work: like
Woody Allen, Dassin’s permanent foreign vacation got him to produce one of his best features.
1955’s Rififi
(92 percent), about a newly released jailbird who re-enters the crime world to
pull of a jewel heist, is a crackerjack thriller. Elegantly shot in black
and white and with compelling performances, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles
calls Rififi, "[o]ne of the great crime thrillers, the benchmark all
succeeding heist films have been measured against."

And now, a moment of silence. Or several hundred moments of
silence. The legendary centerpiece of Rififi is the jewel heist segment, a completely
wordless, music-free caper that ingeniously turns ordinary objects into tools of
the criminal trade. It’s one of the most nail-biting 30 minutes captured on film.
With action segments now largely driven by stylish edits and speaker-blowing
sound effects and music, Rififi‘s intensely intimate silence speaks

As the times change, so do crime movies. It’s now
commonplace to find crime dramas with hip hop soundtracks, but when
New Jack
(79 percent) was first released in 1991, such cross-promotion was
nothing short of revelatory. It didn’t hurt that the movie itself was a sharp
neo-noir packed with grit and electricity. In his feature directorial debut,
Mario Van Peebles simultaneously borrowed from such gangster touchstones as Scarface
and The Godfather while updating the streetwise blaxploitation classics
of the 1970s (Shaft,
, his father’s
Sweet Sweetback
and adding a dash of quasi-history to the mix as well. Drug lord Nino Brown
(Wesley Snipes) is loosely based upon Nicky Barnes (the subject of the recent
doc Mr. Untouchable, 63 percent); he runs New York’s most dominant drug
organization, converting an apartment complex into a thriving crackhouse. The
police make it a priority to infiltrate Nino’s organization, with an undercover
cop (Ice-T) and a reformed drug addict (Chris Rock) enlisted for the task.

New Jack City has a few problems, most notably its
ludicrous ending. But the film boasts a number of excellent performances: Snipes
is malevolently effective as the brilliant but amoral Nino;
Ice-T and
smartly transcend cliché as cops who don’t like each other but share a
level of mutual respect; and Rock, in a rare dramatic role, is spellbinding as a
recovering crackhead, full of desperate energy and gallows humor. “The
performances are stoked with hyperbolic verve,” wrote Hal Hinson in the Washington
. “The actors all seem to have hooked into the pure, concentrated heart
of their characters, and while their emotions are big, there’s no empty
strutting in them — they’re street-operatic.”

There are a multitude of cinematic roads to Gangland; films
as varied as Little Caesar (84 percent),
Bob Le Flambeur
percent), Deep Cover (84 percent),
Donnie Brasco
(85 percent), and
City of God (92 percent) have allowed audience to infiltrate organized
crime, and reap illicit thrills in the process.

Authors: Sara Schieron, Alex Vo, and Tim Ryan.

Tag Cloud

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina stop motion DC Universe Women's History Month Comic-Con@Home 2021 boxing comic Vudu Alien Tags: Comedy Arrowverse cooking comedies ABC Signature game show festivals archives Instagram Live new zealand book AMC Plus foreign Apple popular Classic Film nfl Shudder Rocketman HBO Pixar sag awards South by Southwest Film Festival based on movie talk show toronto cancelled revenge king kong high school Interview parents Paramount kids Universal Pictures Martial Arts 71st Emmy Awards robots Winners anthology Disney 2021 cartoon supernatural finale Western First Look YA video on demand Awards Sundance Now indiana jones TV streaming movies olympics spider-verse rotten casting biography thriller art house Endgame transformers Reality Competition unscripted 93rd Oscars 20th Century Fox hispanic See It Skip It Hear Us Out leaderboard classics trophy mockumentary SundanceTV TCA Awards comiccon vs. chucky FX Stephen King Pop TruTV criterion Indigenous Sony aapi royal family blaxploitation HBO Go TLC Ellie Kemper crime drama Disney streaming service summer preview Sundance TV universal monsters golden globes Paramount Plus historical drama CW Seed ID 99% dogs Lionsgate kaiju Image Comics golden globe awards First Reviews halloween Crackle BAFTA The Walt Disney Company Red Carpet ITV Elton John vampires NBC cats LGBTQ Netflix Christmas movies DC Comics Video Games serial killer doctor who Neflix docuseries medical drama Best Actress Spectrum Originals Pride Month Pop TV documentary cancelled TV series NBA science fiction cancelled TV shows Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Warner Bros. films A&E diversity comics Broadway TCM rt labs breaking bad series Academy Awards VICE zero dark thirty 94th Oscars Podcast Paramount Network Holidays singing competition CNN christmas movies wonder woman marvel comics Music Tumblr movie mob E! twilight adenture 007 fresh obituary police drama Creative Arts Emmys Grammys VH1 RT21 Rom-Com Columbia Pictures Focus Features prank Opinion spy thriller Reality cars DirecTV WarnerMedia harry potter Best Director A24 Lucasfilm reviews BET Awards OneApp politics NYCC strong female leads Discovery Channel Sci-Fi canceled TV shows Nat Geo Turner Classic Movies Mudbound comic book movies deadpool Best and Worst crossover green book Amazon Studios Peacock Britbox scary movies feel good renewed TV shows Apple TV+ elevated horror History summer TV preview TV renewals Amazon Prime marvel cinematic universe APB Film spanish language saw Fox Searchlight free movies 2019 toy story mutant Watching Series Sundance Adult Swim blockbuster Tarantino HFPA Trophy Talk black comedy Quiz BBC scene in color gangster Star Trek romantic comedy teaser target scene in color Hollywood Foreign Press Association latino slashers Paramount Pictures book adaptation Year in Review period drama richard e. Grant Logo Schedule Polls and Games witnail new york cults ABC new star wars movies trailers PaleyFest young adult MCU animated USA Network 90s children's TV TV One Hallmark Christmas movies Action south america obi wan Box Office telelvision Character Guide spanish FXX dragons Freeform Food Network hist Trivia BET 2020 comic book movie jamie lee curtis Biopics Emmys mission: impossible football Summer Dark Horse Comics Cartoon Network godzilla hollywood sitcom Prime Video cops Universal zombies Toys TCA Winter TV binge Kids & Family indie facebook 79th Golden Globes Awards Song of Ice and Fire Fox News IFC Films nbcuniversal psychological thriller superman zombie Mary Poppins Returns FOX Spike australia Black History Month adventure Disney Channel dceu Nominations TV movies SXSW biopic The Witch AMC screen actors guild Tubi superhero Television Critics Association streaming hidden camera Bravo LGBT National Geographic Christmas stoner Anna Paquin Disney+ Disney Plus adaptation Superheroes rt labs critics edition TBS french Ghostbusters 21st Century Fox heist movie suspense jurassic park satire 2017 Mary Tyler Moore Brie Larson Heroines monster movies scene in color series Epix President sequel Mindy Kaling Thanksgiving GLAAD TV Land crime thriller festival news OWN Native sports japan ViacomCBS YouTube Red Cosplay Funimation women aliens Apple TV Plus PBS YouTube Premium anime Mystery Lifetime Christmas movies Superheroe dc The CW true crime Marvel Television video Chernobyl ESPN Valentine's Day independent Masterpiece ratings Certified Fresh Spring TV TNT Wes Anderson posters IFC political drama Syfy Animation dark CBS All Access comic books The Walking Dead pirates of the caribbean reboot Television Academy Sony Pictures genre Fantasy technology sequels a nightmare on elm street game of thrones San Diego Comic-Con what to watch tv talk kong miniseries The Purge MSNBC docudrama The Academy Comedy international DC streaming service CMT award winner Pet Sematary hispanic heritage month 73rd Emmy Awards critic resources Mary poppins Tomatazos composers Netflix justice league El Rey VOD Family Exclusive Video Oscar Cannes Awards Tour know your critic canceled Comic Book Marvel Disney Plus Photos BBC One 1990s summer TV Horror black discovery live action rotten movies we love boxoffice japanese worst Premiere Dates WGN legend slasher Star Wars razzies batman E3 name the review romance action-comedy HBO Max Baby Yoda Tokyo Olympics interviews 2016 RT History TCA 2017 Nickelodeon directors dreamworks mcc Writers Guild of America Country 2018 scene in color film series Best Actor war MTV cancelled television PlayStation Teen screenings stand-up comedy television ABC Family New York Comic Con X-Men debate Captain marvel IMDb TV TIFF Infographic Rock disaster 4/20 travel Binge Guide halloween tv remakes social media die hard james bond documentaries rt archives GIFs venice Starz worst movies ghosts Calendar movies 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Film Festival Geeked Week Comedy Central Travel Channel versus Sneak Peek cinemax 72 Emmy Awards rom-coms Rocky Marvel Studios Comics on TV Amazon Star Wars Celebration streamig Best Picture scorecard Avengers lord of the rings king arthur Lifetime quibi sopranos American Society of Cinematographers TCA Winter 2020 Hulu FX on Hulu USA DGA Marathons psycho Black Mirror Amazon Prime Video spider-man natural history dexter space 24 frames Election fast and furious basketball BBC America broadcast Emmy Nominations spinoff 45 Pacific Islander 2015 Drama joker blockbusters child's play The Arrangement scary Crunchyroll Fargo Showtime Countdown Super Bowl critics Turner Extras asian-american italian Set visit SXSW 2022 GoT franchise laika all-time Oscars werewolf Shondaland Holiday YouTube Fall TV emmy awards SDCC crime MGM dramedy Esquire Acorn TV best Pirates target CBS Musicals Walt Disney Pictures theme song concert Musical Ovation nature Trailer Legendary Hallmark live event spain