There is little as satisfying as a really good crime film, acted to the hilt by a superb cast. This might be because there is a deep and historic synergy between cinema and depictions of wrongdoing; after all, one of the first films ever made, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, is recognisably about criminal activity, and famously ends with an image of a bandit firing at the camera.
There have been countless pictures following in its footsteps, and indeed Martin Scorsese, one of the great directors of crime cinema – and much else besides – included an explicit homage to it at the end of his film Goodfellas. Yet many other filmmakers have taken the opportunity to do something unusual and interesting within the confines of the genre, twisting its conventions and expectations to create something unique. Here are some of the most compelling and accomplished from the past few years – and Scarface, because it will never cease to be iconic.
‘Say hello to my little friend!’ Brian de Palma’s Eighties remake of the 1932 crime film is one of the most luxuriant wallows in excess ever committed to celluloid. Starring a scenery-chewing Al Pacino as Cuban refugee Tony Montana, who arrives in America with nothing but rises to become the most infamous drug dealer of his age, it is epic in length (170 minutes), scope and depictions of violence.
The still-notorious chainsaw/motel murder scene remains hard to watch, but then de Palma’s intention is to show how sickening the milieu that he is depicting really is, and succeeds admirably. There have been constant rumours that it is to be remade, most recently with a Coen brothers script and with Luca ‘Call Me By Your Name’ Guadagnino as director, but it will be hard to top this unforgettable and operatic depiction of bad people doing bad things.
Ben Affleck’s career has often resembled a fairground rollercoaster, but it was at its peak for his second film as director, a Boston-set crime thriller that explored the fortunes of four friends set upon committing the ultimate heist.
Affleck directs himself to a fine, charismatic leading performance, but wisely saves the juiciest roles for an Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner as his loose cannon best friend, Jon Hamm as the unrelenting FBI agent on his trail and Pete Postlethwaite as a particularly vicious crime lord. Combining thrilling action scenes with witty dialogue and an engaging central romance between Affleck and Rebecca Hall as a former hostage of his – this is not a film afraid to dabble in nuance – it builds to a final shoot-out that rivals the genre’s benchmark, Heat, for dramatic intensity.
Prohibition has often been a fruitful subject for crime films – one thinks of Brian de Palma’s excellent The Untouchables – but few other pictures have depicted its practitioners as sympathetically as John Hillcoat’s all-star film Lawless, which revolves around the Bondurant brothers and their moonshine business in rural Virginia.
Hillcoat reunited with Nick Cave to write the screenplay after their excellent 2005 collaboration The Proposition, and although Cave aficionados might be surprised and disappointed by how conventional the dialogue and storyline is compared to his wilder work – apparently as a result of studio diktats – there can be no doubt that Guy Pearce’s extraordinarily strange and nasty villain, a US Marshal with deeply odd and perverse tendencies, is a unique collaboration between actor, writer and director, and worth watching the film for alone.
Lord of War
These days, Nicolas Cage is best known for appearing in any old rubbish that will offer him a paycheque, apparently as the result of severe financial difficulty. So it comes as a shock to remember that a decade and a half ago, he was a major film star who could bring something quite special to his work when he was on form, not least in Andrew Niccol’s superb black comic thriller about arms dealers. Although it was a flop on release, Niccol’s righteously furious film is well worth watching once again.
It deals with the way in which freelance international gun-runners can make vast amounts of money by profiting in human misery and suffering, but never succumbs to preachiness, instead offering the laughs and thrills of the finest heist film – except this time, you’re on the side, however reluctantly, of one of the most morally abhorrent characters in cinema.
As we wait, and wait, for the release of Christopher Nolan’s latest thriller Tenet, we can at least entertain ourselves by returning to his genre-blending masterpiece Inception, which proved, as if The Dark Knight and Memento hadn’t already done so, that Nolan was a writer and director of rare visual gifts and imagination.
As he follows the fortunes of a group who are trying to commit the illegal act of ‘inception’ – to plant an idea inside another’s subconscious and watch the ensuing results – Nolan offers a wry metaphor for the filmmaking process, showcases a fine leading performance by a charismatic Leonardo DiCaprio as the increasingly desperate ‘extractor’, and commits some of the most breathtaking action scenes ever seen to film. The centrepiece hallway fight, as characters battle each other and gravity, remains an astonishing coup de cinema.
Martin Scorsese has made many extraordinary crime films – Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Mean Streets and others would happily be the highlight of several filmmakers’ entire career, as would the demented comic fantasia of The Wolf of Wall Street. Yet it is his long (209 minutes) and mournful meditation on the genre that feels like his last word on the subject of gangs and gangsters.
It offers many of the thrills and sharp characterisations of his earlier work, aided by an all-star cast including his regular collaborators Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, to say nothing of new recruit Al Pacino, but it is the extraordinary final act, in which de Niro’s hitman must come to terms with the evil that he has wrought throughout his miserable life, that really sticks in the memory. Scorsese’s use of sophisticated de-ageing technology attracted much interest upon release, but ultimately it is the sombre and melancholy depiction of souls being lost to violence that really impresses.