A frame from the movie "The Highwaymen".

Gangster films became an important sub-genre of US crime cinema almost 100 years ago. Until the 1930s, criminals in America were not so respectfully referred to. It was not until the so-called dry law years, when the smuggling of illegal alcohol flourished on a massive scale, that a new caste of criminals emerged, laying the foundations for the American Mafia.

The American cinema is still a faithful champion of gangster cinema, and famous actors are happy to play gangsters or the agents who hunt them. Such cinematic models have long since become so popular that they are often looked to by filmmakers in other countries – European and now Asian crime thriller directors.

This time, we present ten examples of crime cinema from a wide geography and no more than five years old.

10. The Highwaymen (2019)

Perhaps no other genre in America has undergone such a transformation as the gangster film. Boni Parker and Clyde Berou, the famous 1930s robber couple with popular support, have been revived many times in film and TV. This year, they are joined by another Netflix crime thriller, ‘Robbers‘. This one differs from previous films about the famous criminal couple in that it focuses not on the robbers, who are adorned with a romantic halo thanks to the cinema, but on the Texas Rangers, Frank Hamer and Manny Gault, who hunt them down. It couldn’t be otherwise, because they are played by Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, who have played both gangsters and cops.

In 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde was released in the US, marking the beginning of the “New Hollywood” and answering the calls for a commercial and aesthetic renewal of American cinema. Initially, some American critics dismissed Boni and Clyde as a brash crime film because of its overly detailed depiction of violent scenes. Boni and Clyde then sparked a new wave of retro films, and the leading roles of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty became staggeringly popular, with their photographs appearing not only in film magazines but also in fashion catalogues. Murderers were portrayed as sympathetic and compassionate victims of a soulless capitalist society.

We see a very different emphasis in the new film “Robbers”. It is clear from the very first frames that there will be no romanticisation of criminals. After another brutal crime committed by Boni and Clyde, the Governor (Kathy Bates) apparently silences the reporter by comparing the thugs to Robin Hood: “Could Robin Hood shoot a simple gas station attendant for four dollars?”.

In fairness, it should be said that crime hunters are not at all like traditional soldiers of justice. Frank Hamer and Manny Gault, former Texas Rangers called in for an important mission, have long since ceased to resemble the cool guys whose exploits were the stuff of legends, even for young children. Frank has worked for years as a security guard for an oil company, while Manny idles on his secluded ranch and avoids the temptation to drink as much as possible. Since the Texas Rangers organisation has been officially disbanded (due to the excessive autonomy of the armed squads, which has become a scare to the authorities), Frank and Manny are given the new position of Special Highway Patrol Officers, along with special powers.

Although both stalkers have long since lost their ability to shoot and can no longer run as fast as they used to, the tracking skills they acquired in the past have not disappeared. Although the Rangers are constantly taunted by the FBI agents following them, it is easy to predict that it will not be these proud “professionals” but a pair of weary heroes who will be doing the heavy lifting when it comes to eliminating dangerous thugs. (G.J.)

9. The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

I would like to recommend this film first and foremost to all those who have enjoyed watching the six seasons of the hugely popular worldwide mafia series “The Sopranos” over the years, and who still refer to James Gandolfini, who played the lead role, as one of their favourite actors.

Because Alan Taylor’s All Saints of Newark is a kind of pre-history of The Sopranos, with Michael Gandolfini, son of James Gandolfini, playing the teenage Tony Soprano.

The new film is set in Newark, New Jersey, in the late 1960s. Its inhabitants have long forgotten what a quiet everyday life once looked like in a typical provincial paradise. Now, the city’s streets are the scene of a never-ending war between criminal clans. A young man, Tony Soprano, plays a major role in this bloody mess and dreams of making a place for himself in the sun.

From the present, we know that Tony will surely make it as a mafia boss, but it is not boring to watch the young man’s steps (often literally “over corpses”) towards his goal.

The filmmakers recall the tumultuous context of the 1960s, full of decisive political changes and a tremendous escalation of the struggle for black rights. After an African-American taxi driver is mercilessly beaten by the cops, the city erupts in violent riots and uncontrolled violence.

A young black boy, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), and a local mobster’s henchman, Dicky Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), are dragged into the violence. The former even dreams of forming an African-American crime syndicate to oppose the local Italian mafia.

And Tony has already been expelled from his primary school after running an illegal gambling operation and even stealing geometry exam answers. But he is not such an important person in the plot in the following events.

It is unlikely that All Saints of Newark will become a cult classic like the Sopranos of recent memory or the famous Martin Scorsese cinematic masterpieces that have been splashed with mafia themes across the board. Especially his “Tough Guys” (GoodFellas, 1990). It was, incidentally, from him that actor Ray Liotta (1954-2022), who played two roles in All Saints of Newark before his unexpected death, came.

But that alone is not enough for an overall great result. And this is probably primarily due to the lack of historical emphasis in the script, as if the filmmakers were afraid of exacerbating conflicts that would surely have been maximised in the past, when the current political correctness did not prevail. (G.J.)

8. The Irishman (2019)

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, a writer who knew the gangster world well. The book’s strange title means, in criminal jargon, “I Heard You’re a Hired Killer” (after a visit by such a “specialist”, the victim’s house is usually left with blood-splattered walls). The book was written after a thorough study of real events and based on the stories of “Irish” (the name given to the gangster Frank Sheeran) himself.

Scorsese had expressed his desire to adapt the book over a decade ago, but Paramount’s executives delayed for a long time and finally abandoned the project. Then the online platform Netflix stepped in and, to avoid conflicts again (until recently, Netflix films were not accepted into the Cannes Film Festival competition and were not nominated for the Oscars on the grounds that they were a TV and not a film production), a week ago it released “Airy” on the big screens (a couple of days ago, a friend who lives in the US city of Marietta in the US complained in a face book about the fact that it was not possible to get tickets in the first days of the festival).

During the ten years of delay while the fate of this film project was being negotiated, the cost of the film inevitably rose, of course, and the relentless passage of time made the performers in the lead roles noticeably obsolete, so that it was necessary to resort to special technologies to help solve the problem (not always successfully, of course, but that’s a whole other story).

The three-and-a-half-hour film accurately defines the historical background of the late 1960s. It is a time of great political and social upheaval: the rise of the Kennedy clan in US political life, the escalation of the Cold War triggered by the socialist revolution in Cuba, and the extension of the Mafia’s grip on the workers’ unions.

The filmmakers’ characterisation of these important factors in US political life provides many interesting details that allow us to see familiar political events in a new light. For example, Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of a powerful political clan, who was close friends with the Mafia leaders, received serious help from them during the presidential election (when, thanks to the Mafia, dead souls voted en masse for John F. Kennedy in the constituencies, with the earthly names of the dead being transferred to the ballot papers from the inscriptions on the tombstones). Or that the attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime was a failed military action, the real purpose of which was to restore the positions and assets lost by the American mafiosi in Cuba (casinos, etc.).

The presence of three such cinema luminaries in one project in itself guarantees a high level of acting. One cannot help but notice how playfully all three of them “play” their scores as if from sheet music (it is not often that Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have been given roles worthy of their talents in the cinema in recent times, and Joe Pesci, a few years ago, had retired from cinema altogether and only came back to the screen because the director insisted on it for a long time).(G.J.)

 7. The Traitor (2019)

Is it possible to defeat in Italy a mafia that has existed for several centuries and that has mutated considerably, and which until recently was called unbeatable?

Marco Bellocchio tried to give an optimistic answer in “Mafia Traitor” (premiered at the Cannes Film Festival), using another true story.

In the 1980s, Sicily is rocked by another brutal Mafia war for control of the flow of drugs. Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), one of the members of the warring Cosa Nostra, is forced to flee the country. Finding a safe haven in Brazil with his beautiful wife and children, he watches from afar as mafiosi in Palermo kill the traitor’s relatives in revenge.

But the safe life ended when the fugitive became the object of interest of the Brazilian police, which (if their quota methods are as depicted in the film, to the tune of the sentimental Mexican song “Historia de un amor”) are no different from the brutal torture of the mafia. Finally, Buscetta is brought back home and handed over to Italian law enforcement. The only way to stay alive is to break his “omerta” (in other words, to break the most important rule of the Sicilian Mafia’s code of honour, the vow of silence) and to cooperate with the Italian authorities in exchange for state protection.

Back home, Tommaso Buscetta trusts Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi) and resolves to betray his former comrades. Falcone, an uncompromising fighter against the mafia, had developed a tactic: when the first witness speaks out, the mafia structure will begin to crumble and eventually the impregnable fortress will collapse (“if the mafia once had a beginning, it will one day have an end”. This seems to have been the case, except that the result had to wait more than two decades (the film covers events from the 1960s to the 2000s). Buscetta’s testimony was so important that it enabled the Italian police to arrest 366 Mafiosi of various ranks.

At the Cannes Film Festival, Marco Bellocchio, the director of Mafia Traitor, said he wanted to give his film the characteristics of Shakespeare’s tragedies and traditional Italian opera. We have already seen similar fusions in the films of F.F. Coppola and M. Scorsese.

But I have never seen such outbursts of Italian temperament in a courtroom, when the judges are clearly under pressure from the demarche of angry women, and the participants in the trial not only hurl death threats, but also, overcome by emotion, sing a slightly reworked version of Toto Cutugno’s hit “Sono siciliano” or strip naked in ecstasy. (G.J.)

6. Ash Is Purest White (2018)

It is a Chinese drama directed by He Zhanke. The director drew inspiration for this story from a gang leader he particularly admired as a child. The director’s wife Tai Zhao plays the lead role.

The film is set in the first 10 years of the 21st century. The plot revolves around Qiao, who at the beginning of the film, in 2001, is shown as the dutiful girlfriend of a small-time gangster, Bin. She comes from a family of coal miners, who are harder hit by the sudden drop in coal prices. However, being with Bin and the economic situation he has built around himself, the woman’s financial situation is stable. Qiao seems like the perfect girlfriend, she is understanding, loyal, supportive, trustworthy, and involved in the gangster boy’s world. But one day everything changes. When Bina is attacked by a local gang in the middle of a crowded town square, the girl pulls out a gun and shoots in the air to scare them off. Qiao is sent to prison for five years for possession of an illegal weapon, during which time her life changes completely. After her release, Qiao realises that Bino is long gone and she has nothing. Hoping to find Bino, she embarks on a journey to see an undiscovered, renewed China, facing various challenges and trying to build her own life from scratch, while still remaining loyal to Bino.

And while that fidelity lasts 16 years, visually, emotionally and in terms of technological development, it feels more like a century. The director himself says that a visit to China, however brief, surrounded by giant skyscrapers and high-speed trains, will make one feel as if one’s feelings and desires have been put on hold, forgotten.

5. The Outlaws (2017)

We know nothing about the achievements of North Korean cinema. In South Korea, however, national cinema is thriving and has long since transcended not only the country, but also the Asian region.

Genre cinema is also thriving here. The Koreans know how to make not only great psychological chamber dramas, but also fantastic blockbusters and “tightly wrought” crime thrillers.

Yoon-Seong Kang’s 2017 film Outside the Law is in the latter category. Set in 2004, the film is set in Seoul’s densely populated Chinatown, where three very brazen migrants turn up in a dangerous criminogenic situation. Before they can even get their feet wet in a foreign territory, they kill the local leader of a gang of criminals and start to make their own order.

The leader of the new recruits, Yang Chen, leader of the mainland Chinese Black Dragon gang, declares himself the new “authority” and, together with his cronies and the new criminal authorities, tries to take over the businesses of his potential rivals.

Ma Suk-Do, a corrupt local official, was used to coexisting as peacefully as possible with previous racketeers. He thinks that this time, too, he will find common ground with the latest “masters” of the situation. But Yang Chen seems reluctant to share power and influence with anyone.

Inevitably, major conflicts arise, and the rest of the film is devoted to them.

“Outside the Law is the first part of the Crime City series. It was followed by a sequel, The Roundup (2022), and another sequel, The Roundup: No Way Out, is still in development. (G.J.)

4. American Made (2017)

Tom Cruise’s Barry Sylas in this film resembles another adventurous comedy character, Frank Ebegneil, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Steven Spielberg’s Catch If You Can (2002). In the early 1970s, the son of an American impoverished by tax politics launches a personal challenge to the mighty American empire. At the age of just 16, he learned to forge cheques for large sums of money in such a way that even the most experienced banking experts could not tell the forgeries apart. Then Frank became a pilot and a “bunny”, flying on the planes of the world’s most famous airlines, cashing in other people’s millions.

Equally inventive is the adventurer Barry Sylas, dubbed “America’s crook” by our distributor. He learned to fly a plane when he was only 15 years old and soon became one of TWA’s top pilots in the 1980s. He realised the potential of his profession early on and started smuggling contraband from the US to Canada. When this criminal enterprise comes to light, CIA agent Monty Shaffer (Domhnall Gleeson) puts the smuggler “on the hook” and blackmails him into espionage activities, at the time directed by the government against the communist organisations that were gaining strength in Central America. Now, instead of flying passengers, Barry uses his plane to take photographs of rebel camps in the rebellious republics. Soon, the Medellin drug cartel took notice of the pilot’s talents: the drug lords, led by Pablo Escobar, needed a specialist who could transport cocaine to the United States and who had a reliable “roof” of the American secret services. A useful informer for the American government has thus become one of the main drug couriers.

Sitting on two chairs at the same time is as difficult as being the servant of two masters, according to the classics. And one does not know which is more dangerous – being a drug courier and swimming in money or being involved in illegal arms smuggling: both are lucrative while the going is good, but if the operations collapse, both would have a sad end.

The film’s major events are linked to the international political scandal known as the Iran-Contra affair during the second term of US President Ronald Reagan. This scandal arose because people on Reagan’s National Security Council wanted to support the right-wing Contra rebels who were rising up against the leftist government in Nicaragua, even though Congress had passed a law forbidding this. But the President wanted to free several American hostages held by the Iranian government, and Reagan’s advisers also began to promote arms sales to Iran. Over time, the two operations merged: the National Security Council (NSC) began to use the proceeds of the arms trade to help the Contra movement.

Barry Sylas was just then caught up in this tangled web of political intrigue, in which very different people were intertwined – CIA agents, drug lords, the US President’s army, real insurgents and provocateurs, Latin American dictators and even… future US President Bill Clinton, who was then governor of Arkansas. (G.J.)

3. Gun City (2018)

This retro thriller from Spanish director Dani de la Torre is set in 1921 Barcelona, where tensions between the police and local anarchists are high. And of course, various criminal groups take advantage of this turmoil.

The filmmakers are very precise about the time of the action: 1921 has always been a very specific context for the Spanish people, as it was the time of the social upheavals that provoked and led to the so-called coup of 1923 by Primo de Rivera.

When an armed gang robs a military train on the outskirts of the city one day and steals a large consignment of arms, Aníbal Uriarte (Luis Tosar), an experienced police officer and war veteran, is sent from Madrid to Barcelona to investigate and punish the culprits.

Don’t expect a traditional crime film, where a brave Superman will somehow bring order without breaking the law himself. The crime-fighters will have to resort to violent methods, including murder, on more than one occasion.

Just getting his feet wet, Aníbal Uriarte joins Inspector Rediu’s team, makes contact with the local criminal underground (led by the leader of the “Baron”) and plunges into the world of radical anarchists. Its leaders declare war on the brutal police repression and cause panic and chaos in the city.
The military is just waiting for the right moment to mobilise its forces for a coup d’état. If it succeeds, there will certainly be more blood on the streets.
In this atmosphere of tension, Aníbal Uriarte has to look for reliable allies. One of them will be Salvador Ortiz (Paco Tous), a workers’ leader who has organised a strike of factory workers. His feminist daughter, Sara (Michelle Jenner), is no less militant and fiercely defends women’s rights.
Salvador Ortiz believes in the power of peaceful protests, but not everyone is in favour of this form of resistance. Leon (Jaime Lorente), a young worker, argues that change can only be achieved through violence.
This action-packed film is not only about professional and criminal conflicts. A complicated relationship will bring together Uarte and Sara, who will not only have to learn to trust each other, but also to question their ideals.
All the dramatic conflicts are underlined by a superb soundtrack, with a score reminiscent in places of Ennio Morricone’s music from the legendary gangster epic ‘Once Upon a Time in America’. (G.J.)

2. Lansky (2021)

I have just read the extremely intriguing book “Destroying the Mafia. Fighting Organised Crime in the US” (by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, published by Moose, 2022). It also devotes considerable space to one of the most powerful American gangsters of the last century, Meyer Lansky (1902-1983), better known as the “Godfather of the Jewish Mafia”.

The book says of him: “The Jewish gangster, the brains behind the National Crime Syndicate, in charge of the (Mafia’s) money flow. His main activity is the organisation of both legal and illegal gambling, which has become an enormous source of income”.

Usually in crime films and TV series, this powerful figure from the criminal underworld is in the background. Previously, it was not until 1999’s Lansky (dir. John McNaughton) that he became the main character of a film. Richard Dreyfuss, the actor who played him then, made no attempt to demonise his character. The film focused on his impoverished childhood, and Lansky is often portrayed as a victim of ruthless Israeli and US politicians, having been deported from both countries and declared persona non grata even in Paraguay and Cuba. Lansky’s crimes were presented, in this historical context, as acts provoked by the reality of life in a ruthless competition for survival between the Jewish and Italian mafias.

Far more realistic is the recent film ‘Lansky’, directed by Eytan Rockaway and recently released on the world’s screens, for which our distributors have come up with the more intriguing title ‘America’s Most Influential Mobster’. One could even say that it is a mono-film by the famous actor Harvey Keitel. For the main thing in the film is a series of monologues that the ‘most powerful gangster in America’ says to the writer David Stone (played by Sam Worthington, the actor made famous by Avatar) who is interviewing him.

For a struggling writer, getting to know Lansky is a real gold mine. David is determined to unravel the mobster’s life down to the smallest detail and tell everyone the scandalous story of this gangster, heard first-hand, and thus make a bang-bang return to the world of literature.

“In the golden days of the American mafia empire, the whole criminal world knew Meyer Lansky well. His gambling, narcotics, theft, money laundering, the ruthless killing of his partners, the syndicate he set up with Al Capone, his links with criminal structures not only in the USA but also in Cuba and Europe, have allowed him to put down deep roots in the black market and become a key figure in the criminal world.

But that’s all in the past. In Eytan Rockaway’s film, Lansky is an elderly man of intelligence who spends his days in sunny Miami Beach after years of law enforcement persecution. Fifty years after the end of the bloody crime empire he built, the FBI is still keeping a close eye on his life. Despite the lack of evidence, it is still possible that his links to the criminal world have not been severed and that he is still hiding the vast amounts of stolen wealth.

When the FBI discovers that David is interviewing Lansky for his biographical book, the Feds start using the writer as bait to find out where the millions hidden by this “mafia accountant” are. (G.J.)

1. The Outfit (2022)

It’s no secret that actors’ outfits in feature films are real eye-catchers for the audience. This is especially important in so-called retro films, where the actors’ clothing is of great importance. In such cases, the clothes and jewellery and other accessories adorning the stars become not just goods, but have a special term, product placement (the State Commission for the Lithuanian Language proposes to call it “product placement”).

The best way to identify the results of such product placement is to read the final credits of the films, which make it clear which haute couture houses are adorning the film stars. Sometimes this is even more important than acting. For example, in the thriller The Tourist (2010, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), Angelina Jolie elegantly wears a spectacular suit with a striking red ribbon “tail” in only a few scenes at the beginning of the film. By the time she arrives in Venice, she is already changing outfits in every scene (the suits, evening dresses, penny loafers, gloves, lingerie, fashion accessories and diamond jewellery she wears could make a sizeable pret-a-pot catalogue). Unfortunately, her performance in the film does not really shine with a similar variety,

We have seen many examples of this in cinema. Films about the people who design and make beautiful clothes are far less common. We have also seen films about clothing designers, real and fictional, played by celebrities such as Audrey Tautou (Coco v Chanel), Daniel Day-Lewis (Invisible Thread), Kate Winslet (The Dressmaker) and others.

Last year, this gallery was beautifully integrated by Graham Moore’s film The Outfit, which is called “The Tailor” in France, “The Secret Village” in Poland, “The Suit” in Ukraine, “Clothes” in some countries, and “The Mafia Tailor” in Lithuania.

The Lithuanian name is probably the most accurate, as the English word also means “Organisation”. This was the name of the Chicago Mafia Syndicate in the 1930s, when Al Capone was an important figure in this organisation.

The main character in the new film is played by actor Mark Rylance, who is always interesting to see whoever he plays, be it King Henry VIII’s father-in-law Tom Boleyn (The Queen’s Sister, 2008), a spy working for the Soviets (Bridge of Spies, 2015), the Giant Gerul (in Spielberg’s Fairy Tale, 2016), or the nameless Magistrate (In Search of Barbarians, 2019).

In “The Mafia Tailor”, Mark Rylance plays Leonard Berling, a tailor who comes to Chicago from London. The action takes place in 1956. Leonard’s tailor shop is located in an area controlled by Irish mob boss Roy Boyle. The gang members are the immigrant’s most important clients and even use Leonard’s headquarters as a repository for dirty money. But the man has no problem with this, because the gangsters pay handsomely for their services.

But for once, this peace is over. When the gangsters discover that a “mole” has been found in their midst, passing on information to the Feds, Leonardo is instantly on the suspect list. And that doesn’t bode well for him.

The film, like the other Whale in this review, resembles a chamber play in that almost all the action is concentrated in one location and the number of characters is limited. Mark Rylance (as Brendan Fraser in The Whale) plays a prominent solo part here.

Leonard Berling, the tailor, is a complex personality. Slow to think, speaks less than he knows, carefully hides his past, a man of excellent manners (a true Brit!) and humour. He says he moved to America after the war because American jeans had invaded England and classic suits had fallen out of fashion. But it becomes clear quite early on to a careful viewer that there were more serious reasons for this emigration. They and their consequences gradually become clear.

“The Mafia Tailor” is the first film directed by Graham Moore. Although he is still young (born in 1981), he is already a household name in the film world: he was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for the drama The Imitation Game (2014, directed by Morten Tyldum).

The individual components of the film – the soundtrack, the visuals, the scenery, etc. – are not particularly distinctive. But together they fit perfectly. Just like the individual pieces in a perfectly tailored suit. (G.J.)

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