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Great Gangster/Mafia Movies

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Great Gangster/Mafia Movies

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Last weekend DirecTV ran its occasional free premiums weekend. You know, three days to set your DVR to offerings from HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz, Encore, so on. One film that caught my attention was a 2011 independent film called, “Kill the Irishman.” It was the story of a man named Danny Greene, who took on the Cleveland mafia in the 1970s. I found it entertaining, but by no means a classic in the gangster film genre. This did get me thinking however, what are my favorite gangster/mafia films?

The image above is iconic. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, everyone knows of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic adaptation of author Mario Puzo’s, “The Godfather.” It is considered by nearly everyone I know to be the greatest mafia film of all time, if not one of the greatest films in history. The sequel two years later was also a masterpiece. 1990’s “The Godfather III” was not, but I always thought it was better than most gave it credit for being.

I must however qualify my praise of these films with the following disclaimer: I’m not typically a fan of 3-hour-long films. I give the Godfather films a pass because of their greatness, but let’s face it…..they’re more epics than movies. They’re a commitment. If you settle in for one of them, you’re in it for the long haul. If I’d seen them in the theater, they most certainly would not have passed the bathroom test. Therefore, as much as I love them, I can’t say any of them are my all-time favorite gangster films.

In the early 80s we’d see Al Pacino back in gangster form, teaming up with director Brian De Palma in the the film, “Scarface.”

A wildly popular film still today, it was probably the most violent and vulgar film to ever hit the big screen in its time. It’s an entertaining story. There are many memorable scenes and lines people still recite. It’s a classic in its own right. I must say however, and Scarface lovers will kill me for this, I don’t feel the film has held up that well. I tried watching it maybe five years ago or so and it just looked so dated and even somewhat cheesy.  Aside from Pacino and the great, late, Robert Loggia, the acting was pretty poor, and the music and fashion are firmly stuck in 1983.

Seven years later another well-known Italian-American director took his next shot at the gangster genre, and this time he hit absolute gold. In 1990, Martin Scorcese made the film, “Goodfellas.”

In my opinion, this was the greatest mafia movie ever made. It may very well be the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. It had the class, look, and feel of The Godfather, and the action and pacing of Scarface. The acting was second to none. Long-time Scorcese associates Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were at the top of their game. Lorraine Bracco (who would later go on to shine in The Sopranos) had a breakthrough performance. The performance I was most impressed with however, was that of Ray Liotta. Some actors are great no matter what. For example, Morgan Freeman can be in a crappy film, but Morgan Freeman is still great, right? Well, Ray is not one of those actors. Most of Liotta’s resume consists of crappy performances in crappy films. But when you give this guy a great script and surround him with great actors, the guy is gold. It’s pretty hard to be a young actor and hold your own on screen opposite the likes of De Niro, Pesci, and Paul Sorvino, and yet that’s exactly what Liotta did here.

If someone living under a rock for the past 40 years came up and told me they’d never seen a gangster film before and wanted to know what to watch, I’d recommend Goodfellas first and foremost every time.

Other must-sees:

The Scorcese-De Niro-Pesci trio at it again. A little too long for my taste, but it’s a classic for the genre. A little trivia tidbit for you……this film holds the record for the most F-bombs in history. So it’s got that if you’re into that sort of thing.

“Carlito’s Way”

Ten years after Scarface, director Brian De Palma and Al Pacino reunited on this great, underrated film. I absolutely love this movie. De Palma does an outstanding job capturing the look and feel of the ’70s. Pacino and Sean Penn combine for one of their greatest acting performances respectively.

“Donnie Brasco”

Who else? Al Pacino in what he claimed at the time (1997) would be his last mafia-related picture. Al was once again fantastic, but this was Johnny Depp’s film. When Depp isn’t parading around in costumes or faking British accents, he’s actually a really great actor. This was Depp at his finest. If you love the mafia genre and you haven’t seen this film, please do yourself a favor and do so. You won’t be disappointed.

(Honorable mention would be HBO Film’s “Gotti,” starring Armand Assante as John Gotti. A very entertaining flick)

So there’s my take on the Mafia film genre. Did I miss any?

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