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Will 'Public Enemies' With Christian Bale And Johnny Depp Make The Top Gangster Movie List?

June 30th, 2009 10:10am EDT
Public EnemiesIt's hard to draft this kind of list with "Public Enemies" so close to reaching its port of call at your local theater, since it's bound to shake the list up a bit. But so far as it goes, the Mob genre has a few golden standards that have set the bar high enough to make any director quake in their concrete boots at the prospect of taking the plunge. These films have a built-in mechanism that causes them either to take complete control of the empire or erupt like a car bomb. It's the requirement for these movies to champion the 'bad guy' as the hero of the film, casting them in a sympathetic role against societies 'good guys', that makes the genre so volatile.

This is no easy feat, given that cops protect us, the viewers, from the very people that these movies make out to be heroes. So when a movie like "Scarface" becomes a seminal stone in any decent DVD collection, you have to wonder why. Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma find, in Tony Montana, a crash-and-burn version of the American dream that we relate to. Tony is fiercely ambitious, and discovers an outlet for his ambition in crime. What makes "Scarface" so important is that it uses Tony Montana's blaze to the top as a metaphor for displaced American values. We all want the same things that Tony wants; money, women, power, cars, mansions, and enough cocaine to make a snow plow sweat. But Tony's ultimate destruction teaches us that those aren't the things that bring happiness. "Scarface", more than any other gangster film, examines the flaws in the American Dream.

Scarface

Image © Universal Studios.

At the other end of this long table of sharp suits sits Francis Ford Coppola's infamous portrait of the Italian Cosa Nostra, "The Godfather", which examines mafia life from the point of view that champions the American Dream. Vito Corleone discovers, in crime, the means to give his family the life he always wanted for them. It's hard not to sympathize with this, even when it means watching his sons brutally murder people. Perhaps the reason that "The Godfather" is so famous is that its characters are so vivid, and so personable, that we completely buy into the drama of their family life. They have all the same trials that we do; marriage, death, dumb relatives, wonderful opportunities, all encapsulated by the passage of decades, but in a profession that hinges all of their decisions on a razor's edge. Scorsese does something similar in "Goodfellas", but where Mario Puzo's characters are larger than life, Scorsese's are true to life.

The Godfather

Image © Paramount Pictures

Michael Corleone is endowed with a sense of passion for his family, as well as a gift for outwitting his enemies that borders on genius. Henry Hill on the other hand, the narrator and protagonist of "Goodfellas", is just a regular joe who wants the things that the gangster lifestyle will bring him. Unlike the Corleone family, Henry and his mobster pals try to remain professional, but are more often driven by their emotions. They make a mess of things, clean it up, do time in jail, and manage to get by. Scorsese tells a different kind of mobster story that falls somewhere in between "Scarface" and "The Godfather", even its title seems to reference the fact that his protagonists are just regular guys, 'good fellas'. His is also the only one of the three based off of a true story (at least from Henry Hill's point of view).

Goodfellas

Image © Warner Brothers

Quentin Tarantino's best films, "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs", also belong on this list and in a category all to themselves. These movies are post modern in the sense that they seem to be aware of the fact that they are a movie; juggling pithy dialogue, fake backgrounds, and comic framing with realistic violence, and scenes that are nearly excruciating to watch. Unlike other mob films, these exchange subtlety for being ultra chic, and pay some much needed respect to the more exploitative mobster movies of the sixties and seventies (they sucked, but they sucked so well), and launch themselves into a new genre of gangster film; the Pop-Gangster Film.

Pulp Fiction

Image © Warner Brothers

Michael Mann's seminal crime drama, "Heat", belongs on two lists, 'Best Cop Movies' and 'Best Mob Movies', and sets the stage for what we're likely to see in "Public Enemies". His films often chase an angle that few others do; the similarities between good guys and bad guys. "Heat" follows the parallel stories of a team of expert thieves, led by Robert De Niro (who also starred in "Godfather II", and "Goodfellas"), and the team of police charged with taking them down, led by Al Pacino (who also starred in "The Godfather" and "Scarface"). Mann is able to realistically blur the lines between 'good guy' and 'bad guy' by contrasting scenes of Al Pacino making deals with street goons for information with those of Robert De Niro falling in love, and showing genuine compassion for his fellow crooks. There are also scenes of mutual respect, even camaraderie, between De Nero and Pacino.


You can expect to see a similar relationship between Christian Bale and Johnny Depp in the upcoming "Public Enemies" (you also saw it in Michael Mann's "Collateral", with Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise). And while the best gangster movies have tightly secured their reigns at the top, there is always room for new additions, and an opportunity for the old ones to be dethroned. I would expect nothing less from the combination of Bale, Depp, and Mann than to be the wise guys to do the job. Here's hoping that their power play is as tightly planned as one of the Corleone's, as furiously carried out as Tony Montana's, and as fun to watch as Tarantino's.

Eric Jones
Story by Eric Jones

Starpulse contributing writer

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