The Next Gangster Movies to Watch When You're Done With The Godfather
ILLUSTRATOR Bacs Arcebal
The Godfather Trilogy has returned to Netflix, and with it, the myth of the elegant gangster. While the elegant gangster certainly did exist at a point, and to some extent probably still does now, the image of the modern gangster is not elegant, but like us, mortal and political and experiential. Here, three double features to acquaint yourself with the modern gangster.
The Romantic Gangster
Days Of Being Wild (1990) / The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005)
The stereotypical film gangsters are cold, unfeeling, and totally dedicated to their life of crime. Perhaps there’s a little remorse sprinkled in, but only in brief moments of weakness, or in the end at the very moment of their downfall. In contrast to the stereotype, Days of Being Wild and The Beat My Heart Skipped are two films in which gangsters are plagued by their humanity and mortal affairs.
In Jacques Audi’s The Beat My Heart Skipped, 28-year-old Thomas is a small-time criminal involved in real estate rackets, but whose true passion is to play piano, for which he prepares to audition for the former manager of his late mother, a concert pianist. He hates his father’s new, much younger girlfriend, and finds himself attracted to his piano tutor. With so many distractions, his co-workers start to notice the effect on his work, and begin to lean in. The film posits that a normal life and that of a gangster cannot co-exist, inevitably one will seep into the other.
Beat is an exploration in choice, and sympathizes with anyone who’s ever had to make one. While Thomas, in a rouge-ish turn from French rom-com actor Romain Duris, is capable of channeling brutality at any moment, there is a tenderness that escapes, an acknowledgment of deep, constant questioning. Is this really who he is, and if so, can he still change?
In Days Of Being Wild, the sophomore effort from Wong Kai Wai, York is a nomadic, womanizing thug who spends his time laying around, smoking cigarettes. Like Thomas, he deals with mundanities to the core (much of the film is him fending off exes) and similarly hates his adoptive mother’s new boyfriend.
More so than Thomas, however, York seems to be lying to himself and everyone else. While Thomas has a flamboyant streak, beating up a bar owner in debt to his father, York’s disillusionment feels almost performative, though he too beats up his adoptive mother’s much younger boyfriend.
He muses on time, love, and nothingness to his various lovers, but they’re enamored with him. His words barely even register. He’s simply monologuing to himself, thinking aloud.
Eventually, his well runs dry, and he travels to the Philippines (!) to find his biological mother. As jaded as he plays himself off, York is like anyone, insecure about his identity and still figuring out who he is. In contrast to the stereotypical cold gangster, these films are particular studies in the confusion of youth and identity, in a way that both can almost be considered coming of age pieces.
The Hyperreal Gangster
Belly (1999) / Branded To Kill (1967)
While the last two films focus on the earthliness of gangster existences, Belly and Branded to Kill are exercises in maximalism, rich in cinematic vocabulary that portray the experience of criminality as so surreal that it is almost otherworldly.
Belly, music video director Hype Williams’s only film to date, is a pure psychedelic adventure from start to finish. The film is led by Sin and Tommy, two up-and-coming stick-up artists, as they are presented with opportunities to either ascend in the ranks or escape into new lives. Tommy has no one, needs no one, and is all the better for it, setting up a heroin operation that goes from Kingston to Nebraska, but Sin has a girlfriend and a daughter, and is beginning to question whether he can sustain his lifestyle.
Williams elevates what could’ve been a very basic “escape the life” plot with his understanding of iconography and pop culture. Having directed stars like Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G. and Will Smith, Williams tuned in to the use of celebrity and their image, casting DMX and Nas as the film’s antagonists, and used cutting edge imagery to, in his words, “forecast what the hip-hop genre's gonna look like in the millennium.”
From voodoo assassins and Jamaican cyberpunk to its iconic neon-soaked opening robbery and tribal, moody sex scenes, Belly is one-of-a-kind and portrays the gangster life as such. As the stakes rise, however, both Sin and Tommy come to an understanding, and begin considering their spiritual place in the world, praying and studying instead of trapping, and the idea of heaven switches from Jamaica as an indulgent playground to Africa and black brotherhood as the motherland.
As exhilarating as it is to revel in the hedonistic films first half, Belly finds as much, if not more, power in the path toward salvation.
Branded to Kill features recently deceased yakuza film icon Joe Shisido as Goro Hanada, the Number Three hitman in Japan. Goro is quirky, he fetishizes the smell of boiling rice and feels strongly about butterflies. After one lands on his gun, causing him to hit an innocent bystander, he becomes a man on the run, holing up with his mistress to hide from the Number One Killer. From noted B-movie auteur Seijun Suzuki, Branded to Kill, like Belly, is an exploration in style, icons, and tropes, this time of film noir and Western crime films, and pumps them up to levels that would come off as almost a parody if not played with such conviction.
Number Three hitman Goro is so disciplined (or paranoid) that he sleeps with his eyes open and sits while he pees, and one of the films most iconic scenes is when Goro and Misako, a twisted rendition of film noir’s femme fatale, spend their day having sex on the floor and in bathtubs surrounded by butterflies and birds. And this is not the film's only sex scene, the first one being Goro and his wife having particularly rough sex as he sniffs from a rice cooker.
Despite existing in ethereal, stylized planes, both Belly and Branded to Kill use their heightened realities to convey not just the reality, but the feeling of their respective experiences.
The Corrosive Gangster
New Jack City (1991) / Gomorrah (2008)
Though many gangster classics focus on glamour and swagger, the reason most people fall into criminality is that they are forced to. Perhaps slightly more political than the previous two double features, Gomorra and New Jack City look into how the actions of a few can affect entire communities at large.
At the start of the New Jack City, ferocious drug kingpin Nino Brown and the Cash Money Brothers take over an apartment complex and turn it into the center of their dealing operation. Much of the film focuses on how Nino’s presence in the neighborhood impacts everything and everyone around it. The film is unafraid of its politics, taking strong stances on the crack epidemic (most notably through Chris Rock’s Pookie, a crackhead turned informant) and law enforcement, with Wesley Snipes career-best performance as Nino straddling the line between glamorization of the gangster and portraying the gangster as an all-consuming corrupting force.
New Jack City, with its star-studded cast and kinetic direction, is stylish and slick in its presentation, to the point of seduction.
Gomorra, a 2008 Italian mafia film, is the antidote to that seduction, presenting the jagged reality of organized crime. An expansive film, covering five different stories about life under the rule of the Camorra, one of Italy’s most notorious syndicates. Where New Jack City zigged and zagged, Gomorrah takes a straight line, presenting the harsh mundanity that goes into a life of crime. The characters deal with unglamorous issues like labor disputes, waste management, and secessionism, while continually questioning their loyalty to a broken system.
Most striking, however, its presentation on the corruption of youth. One scene has two wannabe gangsters screaming lines from Scarface in an abandoned workshop, before holding up African immigrants for money and cocaine. In another, a group of teenage boys lines up to get shot in the chest with a bulletproof vest as an initiation. After, they brag about having been initiated and begin breaking friendships with whoever ended up in a rival gang. It isn’t a spoiler to say that most of the stories end tragically, and the film makes no qualms about messaging, forcing the prospective criminal to consider if this is what they really want.
While most of the above films mostly focus on how criminality affects the individual, New Jack City and Gomorrah look to educate the public by politicizing crime, showing how these structures impact the growth and stability of urban environments, leaving entire cities in ruins, just by the greed of a chosen few.
In these films, crime is not seductive or emotional, it is feral and unloving, but more terrifyingly, indifferent to the lives of a few. It is survival of the fittest. Everyone is expendable or replaceable, the only constant being the system itself, chugging away until someone intervenes, or there is nothing and no one left to exploit.