Category Archives: Gangsters

Bang bang shoot ’em up, 1-2-3: Public Enemies **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2009)

If you blink, you might miss the chance to revel in a delicious moment of schadenfreude in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies that decidedly contemporizes this otherwise old school “gangsters vs. G-men” opus. In the midst of conducting an armed robbery, the notoriously felonious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) notices that a bank employee has reflexively emptied his pockets of crumpled bills and loose change . “That’s your money, mister?” Dillinger asks. “Yes,” the frightened man replies. Dillinger gives him a bemused look and says, “We’re here for the bank’s money, not yours. Put it away.”

I almost stood up and cheered…then I remembered that a) Dillinger was a murderous thug, and b) I would never even fantasize about participating in such a caper, so I thought better of it. Still, I couldn’t help but savoring the vicarious thrill of watching a bank getting hosed. I don’t know…it could’ve had something to with the fact that my bank recently doubled my credit card interest, even after they eagerly gobbled up  bailout money  funded by my hard-earned tax dollars. And in context of current economic woes, one can watch Mann’s film and grok how John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Ma Barker, Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd and other “public enemy” list alums gained folk hero cachet during the Great Depression.

Mann focuses his story on the last year or so of Dillinger’s short life (he was  31 when he was fatally ambushed by FBI agents while exiting a movie screening at Chicago’s Biograph Theater on July 22, 1934). The film literally opens with a bang, with Dillinger and his gang shooting their way out of a Lima, Ohio prison in 1933.

While this is not the first crime thriller to open with a prison break (one of Mann’s prime influences, Jean-Pierre Melville came to mind as I watched), it is an exciting and well-mounted sequence, bestowed with a jolting  hyper-realism through Mann’s use of hi-def video. Unfortunately, with the exception of a pulse-pounding reenactment of a pre-dawn gun battle between Dillinger’s gang and FBI agents at the remote Little Bohemia Lodge, the remainder of the film never quite lives up to the crackling promise of its opening salvo.

There’s only one thing a notorious bank robber wants to do as soon as he busts out of stir (hint: the film’s catchphrase is “I rob banks.”). OK…maybe there are two things. Rising star Marion Cotillard (who made a splash last year as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose) plays Dillinger’s French-Native American girlfriend, Billie Frechette with a sexy earthiness that spices up her scenes with Depp (although she is not given much to do beyond playing a stalwart gangster’s moll).

When he’s not wooing Billie, Dillinger spends most of his time robbing banks and staying one step ahead of his arch-nemesis, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) who was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s golden boys back in the fledgling days of the FBI (Billy Crudup hams it up as Hoover). Liverpudlian Stephen Graham appears to be having the time of his life as Dillinger’s most well-known associate, the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (I hailed Graham as a new talent to watch in my 2007 review of This is England).

Look fast for Diana Krall’s cameo as a nightclub singer (crooning a smoky “Bye Bye Blackbird”). And of course there is an appearance by “the lady in red” (Branka Katic)-although apparently it was the “lady in the white blouse and orange skirt” who led the unwitting Dillinger to his doom.

It’s a good thing that the charismatic Depp is present, and that the film is stylishly executed in Mann’s fastidious manner, because, had lesser artists been involved, the rote cops and robbers story lurking at its core would be exposed. Although Mann and co-writers Ronan Bennet and Ann Biderman recycle the narrative device that made his 1995 crime thriller Heat so compelling (i.e., blurring the line of moral demarcation by fleshing out pursuer and quarry with equal import) it all feels sort of perfunctory in this outing.

And, at the risk of being accused of talking apples and oranges, I felt that Bale and Depp’s Big Scene together failed to ignite sparks like Pacino and DeNiro’s face-off did in the aforementioned film. Since Mann has established himself as an auteur,  I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that, relative to his own standards, this is not his best work (although it’s still superior to most of the summer fare currently grinding away at the multiplexes). That being said, if you are a Depp and/or Mann fan, you still may want to give it a shot.

SIFF 2008: Blood Brothers ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 14, 2008)

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Woo me, baby.

No film festival would be complete without a fistful of entries from the Hong Kong action factory. One of the more visually stylish genre pics I’ve seen so far at this year’s SIFF is from first-time director Alexi Tan. Although the story is pure pulp and could have stood a little script doctoring, it’s shot with the rich tones of a Bertolucci film and plays like a 90-minute dance mix of Sergio Leone’s greatest hits. Produced by Hong Kong cinema legend John Woo, Blood Brothers is a noodle western posing as a gangster saga, with a narrative more than a tad reminiscent of Woo’s 1990 classic, Bullet in the Head.

Two brothers, Feng (Daniel Wu) and Hu (Tony Yang) make a pact with their lifelong buddy Kang (Liu Ye) to break out of their backwater village and head off to an exotic and sophisticated metropolis to find fame, fortune and, uh, babes. Think HBO’s Entourage, substituting the race to the top of 1930s Shanghai  underworld for success in present day Hollywood as the brass ring.

Handsome and charismatic Kang is the babe magnet of the trio (he would be  the Vincent Chase character. His younger brother Hu is the frequently overshadowed and more chronically underachieving of the two siblings (there’s your Johnny Drama). And last but not least, there is the physically intimidating, fiercely protective Kang, who is thuggish but cunningly “street smart” (sort of a morph between Eric and “Turtle”). Or, perhaps we could just refer to them as Michael, Fredo and Sonny Corleone? Nah…that’s too easy!

To carry the Entourage analogy further, the “Man” in Shanghai who can make or break the three friend’s fortunes happens to be…a movie producer. In actuality, Boss Hong (Sun Honglei) is more adept at producing piles of bullet-riddled corpses than he is at producing films; it’s a ruthless propensity that has made him one of Shanghai’s most successful and feared crime lords.

Among his many enterprises is the Paradise Night Club, which is where Hu finds a job and brother Feng spots an object of instant desire: lovely Lulu (Shu Qi), Boss Hong’s squeeze and the requisite femme fatale of the piece. Serendipity lands all three pals into Boss Hong’s employ, and eventually into his most trusted inner circle, where friendship and blood ties get sorely tested by the corruption of power (see Godfather II, Scarface, Once Upon a Time in America, etc).

Despite the fact that this is a somewhat cliché gangster tale, and has a lot of plot points that don’t bear up so well under closer scrutiny, I really enjoyed this film because it is executed with such panache. I don’t know what it is about the Hong Kong directors, but they’ve got some kind of cinematic Kavorka that  oozes “cool”. Just watch any of John Woo’s pre-Hollywood era classics, and it’s easy to see why Tarantino and his contemporaries geek out so much over this genre.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be a Boschian nightmare: In Bruges ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 23, 2008)

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It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 14 years since Pulp Fiction was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. So what can we glean from this  factoid? What hath Tarantino wrought? For one thing, the genre tag “hit man comedy” is now officially part of the cinematic lexicon. And, by the looks of things, (love it or loathe it) it is here to stay.

The latest example is a film that reportedly, er, knocked ‘em dead at Sundance  and is currently n theaters-Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. A pair of Irish hit men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell) botch a job in London and are exiled to the Belgian city of Bruges, where they are ordered to lay low and await judgment on their cock-up from their piqued Dublin employer (Ray Fiennes).

Ken is enamored by the “fairy tale” ambience of Bruges, with its intricate canals and well-preserved medieval architecture, and decides to play tourist. The ADD-afflicted Ray, on the other hand, fails to see the appeal of “old buildings” and would just as soon plant himself in front of a pint for the duration of his purgatory.

Initially, Ken lures the reluctant Ray into joining him for sightseeing with the promise of pub time afterwards. However, it becomes evident that Ray lacks any discernible social filter, displaying a general disregard for local mores and folkways. Ken decides that the best way to stay low profile would be to let Ray pass time as he wishes.

In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t elaborate, other than to say that Ray wanders off and finds himself a love interest and enjoys escapades like a coke binge with a “racist dwarf” while Ken is thrust into a moral and ethical dilemma that fuels the dramatic turn of the film’s final third. Toss some heaping tablespoons of raging Catholic guilt, existentialism 101 and winking Hieronymus Bosch references into the mix, and voila! (The Sundance crowd swoons…)

So what exactly has McDonagh cooked up here? Well, as much as I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s “an original dish”, I’d have to call it more of a “sampler plate” featuring a generous wedge of Tarantino and tidbits of Guy Ritchie, sprinkled with a taste of Brendan Behan.

If you’re a fan of dark (very dark) Irish humor, you’ll likely get a few decent chuckles out of playwright McDonagh’s brash and brassy dialog (and marvel at his creative use of “fook” as a noun, adverb, super verb and adjective).

Unfortunately, the humor doesn’t fold so well into the mix with the generous dollops of dramatic bathos and queasy violence. Also, some of the more decidedly un-PC jokes fall terribly flat (I realize that nothing is sacred in comedy, but referring to obese people as “elephants” and a dwarf as a “short-arse” is not what I consider groundbreaking, cutting-edge humor).

That said, there are some strong performances, almost in spite of the film’s uneven tone. Gleeson and Farrell vibe a Laurel and Hardy dynamic together that works very well; you almost expect the doughy, exasperated Gleeson to exclaim “Well, it’s another fine mess you’ve got us into this time!” every time Farrell throws gas on the fire with a Tourette’s-like outburst.

Farrell has not previously impressed me as a nuanced performer, but in this film he proves to be quite deft at navigating the tricky waters of black comedy.

Gleeson, a world-class actor, is superb as always. Fiennes, who seems to be channeling Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (by way of Michael Caine) goes way over the top with his archetypal caricature of a “hard” Cockney gangster, but he appears to be having a grand old time just the same.

I had an “OK” time on my little Belgian excursion with Ray and Ken; and the location filming does make for a great travelogue, as Bruges truly is a beautiful city-but In Bruges may not be the ideal cinematic getaway for all tastes. A guarded recommendation.

Love means never having to say you’re sari: Slumdog Millionaire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2008)

Leave it to Danny Boyle, who somehow managed to transmogrify the horrors of heroin addiction into an exuberant romp (Trainspotting), to reach into the black hole of Mumbai slum life and pull out the most exhilarating “feel good” love story of 2008. Slumdog Millionaire nearly defies category; think Oliver Twist meets Quiz Show in Bollywood.

Using a framing device reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the tale unwinds in first person narrative flashback, as recalled by a young man who is being detained and grilled at a police station. Teenage “slumdog” Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a contestant on India’s version of the popular game show franchise Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has been picked up and accused of cheating, on the eve of his final appearance on the program, which could cap off his prodigious winning streak with a cool 20 million rupees. What makes Jamal suspect to the show’s host (played with smarmy aplomb by Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) is his apparent detachment.

Despite the fact that he’s continually hitting the jackpot with the correct answer to every question, Jamal’s pained expressions and mopey countenance suggests a slouching indifference. After all, he’s a dirt-poor orphan from the streets, so shouldn’t he be beside himself with joy and gratitude ? What could possibly be motivating him to win, if not greed? Love, actually. But don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anyone’s fun. Suffice it to say, when you see the object of Jamal’s devotion, portrayed by Freida Pinto (whose “STARmeter” on the Internet Movie Database has gone up nearly 2000% since last week), you’ll be rooting for our hero (and rutting for Freida).

Patel and Pinto have an appealing on-screen chemistry (some viewers may recognize Patel as a regular cast member of BBC-TV’s cult series, Skins). Madhur Mittal is excellent as Jamal’s brother Salim, with whom he has a complex and mercurial relationship. I don’t know where Boyle found them, but the child actors who portray the younger versions of the three core characters and other supporting roles deliver extraordinary performances. An honorable mention to Ankur Vikal, who plays the most evil villain of the piece, a Fagin-type character who exploits street children in the worst way possible (no one will accuse Boyle of sugar-coating slum life).

While the film is structured like an old school Hollywood love story, it still has snippets of Boyle’s visceral, in-your-face “smell-o-vision”. The flashbacks of the protagonist’s hard-scrabble childhood in the impoverished slums of Mumbai  takes this modern Indian folk into Brothers Grimm land; if you have a bad gag reflex, be prepared.

In the  Bollywood tradition, the film (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan and adapted  by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup’s novel) is equal parts melodrama, comedy, action, and romance. It’s a perfect masala for people who love pure cinema, with colorful costume and set design and hyper-kinetic camera work from DP Anthony Dod Mantle, topped off by a catchy soundtrack. And if you feel like dancing in the aisles during those end credits,  knock yourself out.

DIggin’ the scene with a gangster lean: American Gangster ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2007)

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There is a key scene in Ridley Scott’s crime epic American Gangster that defines the personal code driving one of the principal characters. “Look at the way you’re dressed,” says the impeccably groomed, tastefully attired 1970s Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) in disgust, to his ostentatiously pimped-out brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), “…it’s a look that says: ‘arrest me’. Remember, the loudest one in the room is also the weakest one in the room.”

It’s one of the axioms Lucas picked up while paying his dues working as a driver for his mentor, an old-school Harlem crime lord (Clarence Williams III). By the time his boss keels over from a heart attack, Lucas has been thoroughly schooled in the shrewd business acumen of how to remain a wolf in sheep’s clothing; no matter how venal your methods are for getting to the top and maintaining your position, if you’re able to swing it while maintaining a respectable public appearance, everybody will still love you.

Scott’s film is all about “appearances”; judging a book by its cover, if you will. When we are first introduced to the other main character, New Jersey police detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), it’s unclear whether we’re observing a cop and his partner serving a warrant…or watching a disheveled street thug and his pal pulling a B & E. While his personal grooming habits may be questionable, it is apparent his integrity is of the highest order. Not only is he an honest cop in a department soaked with corruption (he’s sneered at as a “boy scout” when he turns in a million in cash discovered in a dealer’s car), he is also diligently studying to pass the bar exam so he can prosecute criminals in court as well. Ironically, he is concurrently entangled in a messy child custody battle with his ex-wife.

Lucas, on the other hand, maintains the appearance of an upstanding citizen; while surreptitiously operating on the opposite side of the law. He has prospered via an ingenious Southeast Asian heroin pipeline that bypasses any pesky “middlemen”. He buys an estate in the suburbs and sets up house for his brothers and his mother (played by the great Ruby Dee, who we don’t see enough of these days). He marries a beautiful Latina (Lymari Nadal) and ingratiates himself as a pillar of the community, mingling with the hoi polloi and contributing to charitable causes. Most interestingly, Lucas is also able to “hide in plain sight” due to the fact that during this era (the early to mid 1970s), it was literally beyond the ken of the law enforcement community to consider that such a sophisticated, large-scale drug operation could be helmed by an African-American.

Steven Zailian’s screenplay is based on true events; the story revels in the same seedy 70s N.Y.C. milieu that informed films like The French Connection, Serpico and Prince of the City; namely, the occasionally blurry line between a “cop” and a “robber” Scott also uses a trick that worked well for Michael Mann in Heat, building dramatic tension by keeping his two stars apart for most of the film, while teasing us on the inevitability that the pair’s “professional” paths are destined to cross. When Washington and Crowe finally do share a scene together, it proves well worth the wait (watch closely for the coffee cup prop that becomes a metaphorical chess piece; it’s a masterstroke of gesture from both actors).

Scott utilizes his patented ultra-slick visual style (although a grittier look might have better served the story). One bone to pick: despite the deliberate pacing for the first 2 hours, something about the denouement feels curiously rushed. That aside, honorable mentions need to go out to Josh Brolin, for his full-blooded performance as a corrupt Special Investigations Unit cop, and Armand Assante as a mob big shot. I liked the period soundtrack as well, although we need to declare a moratorium on Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”. It’s a great song, but it’s now been used in three films!

Wanna Be in My Gang? – Eastern Promises (***1/2) & This is England (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 6, 2007)

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This week we’ll take a peek at two powerful new dramas, both set in merry old England,…but dealing with some not-so-merry themes.

Director David Cronenberg brings on the blood and the balalaikas in his crackerjack neo-noir, Eastern Promises. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a London midwife obsessed with tracking down the relatives of a newborn infant, left behind by a 14 year-old unwed Russian who tragically dies on her delivery table. Intrigued by the Cyrillic scribbling in the dead girl’s diary, Anna turns to her Russian-speaking uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimosky) for translation.

Stepan staunchly refuses, citing old country superstitions and admonishing his niece for “stealing from the dead”. Undaunted, Anna follows her only solid lead, a business card for a Russian restaurant that she finds in the diary. Anna soon gleans that she would have been better off heeding her uncle’s warning, because the diary is  a hot potato for some extremely dangerous and scary individuals. Soon,  she is pulled into the brutal world of the Russian mob.

 Viggo Mortensen delivers one of his most accomplished performances to date as Nikolai, the Siberian driver for a psychotic mob captain (Vincent Cassel), the son of a godfather (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Mortensen, Cassel and Mueller-Stahl  completely disappear into character.

These skilled actors make it easy to forget that they are in actuality American, French and German; you do not doubt for one second that you are watching native Russians, who live and die by the rules of “vory v zakone” (“thieves in law”, a strict code borne from the gang culture of Russian prisons).

 Screenwriter Steven Knight revisits some of the themes he explored in Dirty Pretty Things; namely, how immigrant communities assimilate (legally and otherwise) while still maintaining a sense of their native culture. (I think this is the aspect of the film that has some people drawing comparisons to The Godfather).

The only quibble I had with Knight’s script was a “twist” toward the end involving one of the main characters that doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative.

 Cronenberg, who has built his reputation on Grand Guginol excess, has slouched toward a lean, almost poetic style in recent films. For devotees, not to worry; the director’s propensity for viscerally “shocking” images and squib-happy bloodletting is still on display, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous; these characters live in a brutal world, and it’s par for the course.

As per usual, Cronenberg slips black humor into the mix. One particular scene, involving an attempted mob hit in a steam bath (and a very naked Viggo), is an instant classic.

At once a brooding character study and atmospheric thriller, Eastern Promises rates among the Canadian iconoclast’s finest work.

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Oi! It’s time now to break out those old Sham 69 LPs for our next film, This is England, the latest from British director Shane Meadows (Twenty-Four Seven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands).

A hard-hitting, naturalistic social drama reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and British “angry young man” films of the early 60s (with a slight whiff of A Clockwork Orange), This is England is set against the backdrop of the Thatcher era, circa 1983.

The story (loosely auto-biographical, based on the director’s Midlands upbringing) centers on a glum, alienated 12 year-old named Shaun (first-time film actor Thomas Turgoose, in an extraordinary performance) who can’t fit in at his school.

Shaun presents a real handful to his loving but somewhat exasperated mother (Jo Hartley), a working-class Falklands War widow who does her best to support herself and her son. After a particularly bad day of being bullied about by teachers and schoolmates, happenstance leads Shaun into the midst of a skinhead gang.

Shaun’s initial apprehension is washed away when  good-natured gang leader Woody (Joe Gilgun) takes him under his wing and offers him an unconditional entrée into their little club. Shaun’s weary working mum is initially not so crazy about his new pals, but after sizing them up decides essentially to leave her son in their care.

Some may feel that this development strains credibility, but I think it’s a pragmatic decision. Her son has no siblings, no close friends, and is suffering from the loss of his father; perhaps this surrogate family will give him what she cannot provide.

The idyll is soon shattered, however, when the gang’s original leader, Combo (Stephen Graham) is released from prison. Combo’s return causes a rift that divides the gang; his jailhouse conversion to racist National Front ideals doesn’t settle well with Woody and his supporters, and they break off on their own.

Shaun decides to stay on after forming an instant bond with the thuggish Combo, who easily parlays the impressionable Shaun’s grief over his father into a blame-shifting hatred of immigrants, with tragic results.

The film works successfully on several levels. Taken ss a cautionary tale, it demonstrates how easily the neglected and disenfranchised can be recruited and indoctrinated into the politics of hate.

As a history lesson, it’s a fascinating glimpse at a not-so-long ago era of complex politics and social upheaval in Great Britain. As a riveting drama, it features astounding performances, particularly from the aforementioned young Turgoose and Graham, who  owns the screen with his charismatic intensity. Not to be missed.