Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Criminal 00's

The Best Crime Movies of the 2000s - Part 11 in our ongoing series.

In Bruges (c) 2008 Focus Features

Many of the best films of all time deal with the lives of crooks and criminals. Gangsters have been deconstructed so many times in movies during the years, is there really anything new to say about the subject any more? Judging by the films of the 2000s, there are plenty of things left. What these films usually do is strip away the glory of the life of crime added by crime epics such as The Godfather. These finest crime films depict crime as brutal and ruthless, and being always something that allows innocents to suffer. I defined the Crime genre here to be a film that focuses on criminals and their daily work. It's not filled with car chases or shoot-outs with police but rather some scall-scale extortion and a lot of idle chatting and planning.

City of God
Cidade de Deus, Brazil 2002
Directors: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund

One great thing about cinema in the 2000s was that films from the third world became also easily available for western audiences. And this surely is a film for us fat cat westerners that think we have it badly in here. City of God is a film about the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the 60's and 70's. There young people are left with the choice of joining a gang or die. A trio of young boys, Rocket, L'il Ze and Bené do petty crimes and develop a strong bond. Years later Ze (Leandro Firmino) and Bené have gotten ever more dangled with the life of crime and dealing drugs and are practically running the city. Rocket (Alexandre Rodriguez) has turned his back on them and wants to leave the slums to become a professional photographer.

The film is nothing short of incredible. It's burned up, scorching cinematography is good - Brian DePalma-level good! The actors may all be amateurs but they pull off their roles intensively and believably. As the film chronicles years' worth of crime it is a massive piece, yet one that will not wash away from memory very easily. And that's probably for the best as it's good to know that such atrocious lifestyle falls on millions of people even today. The film is based on real events.

The Departed
Director: Martin Scorsese
USA, 2006

Andy Lau's hongkongese Infernal Affairs is a fine film, shattering ideas of cops and robbers by showing the ideas of both being damaged by the corruption of the society. Yet the film is confusing and hard to follow at parts. Leave it to maestro Scorsese to make heads and tails out of the story. In his film, the action has moved to Boston. There, the police departement sends a mole (Leonardo DiCaprio) to infiltrate the Irish mob. His job is also to find out who's been giving classified police information to the mobsters. That would be Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a crook that has infiltrated the police force. Neither of the moles knows the identity of the other, yet they both succeed in taking the other's life to parts from their position.

As always with Scorsese, the editing and the use of music are fantastic. This movie has so great characters, that a lot of bit-parters steal the thunder from Damon and DiCaprio (who are still pretty good). The biggest scene-stealers are by far Jack Nicholson’s pervert crime boss and Mark Wahlberg’s insulting policeman, who both seem to be having the time of their life chewing the scenery. One can try to make a film with as quotable lines and as great settings, but William Monahan's script makes it seem effortless. How could you not have a great time with all of that? Granted, the American remake has forgotten a lot of the subletities of the original. Instead, the film overplays its methaphorical iconography that the corruption is inside the whole society. It is still Scorsese's best film of the decade, even if it is lightyears from his previous mob epics.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed
UK, 2009
Director: J Blakeson

I will maintain my affection for this film, which I've already brought out a couple of times. I just think it's great filmmaking that makes it all seem so effortless, even though it's all so well thought-out. The film has only three characters in it, two kidnappers and the kidnappee, the titular Alice Creed. Yet it never feels like a thetre rehersal or an experimental film. The characters seem to live in the real world, and having all the drama happen between three people just emphasizes the isolation of the kidnapping situation. And the crime itself seems to be as well thought-out by the screenwriters as the kidnappers would, as evidenced by the brilliant silent opening scene. Director J Blakeson could be blamed for being a M Night Shyamalan -style plot twister, but I don't think his twists are actually the only thing carrying the whole movie. Rather, they are used to put on a new shift while running the plot. In these times where we get most of our entertainment well-chewed, it is noteworthy where we get a film that doesn't show off all its cards right in the beginning.

Eastern Promises
Canada/USA/UK, 2007
Director: David Cronenberg

The Russian mafia has rarely been the focus of crime films (that I've seen anyway). Usually they are just comically evil antagonists to small-scale british spivs. But leave it to David Cronenberg to bring some weight into the issue. He and his leading man Viggo Mortensen really went to find out about the system of honor among thieves and a sense of families that runs in the background of some really brutal and ruthless gangsters.

In London, the midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) recieves the baby of a deceased teenager. Trying to get the baby to a deserving home gets her tangled with both Russian gangsters and a world that lives by their terrorizing rule. A mob boss's driver Nikolai (Mortensen), however decides to help Anna, which makes him a marked man among the mob.

Cronenberg never lets the viewer off easy and this is no exception. His portrayal of organized crime is one of the most sinister and brutal there is. The horrible scenes of ultra-violence come through suddenly and with all their brutal force. The naked fight in a sauna is one of the most outstanding scenes in the whole decade. The acting is also extraordinary, with Mortensen being particularly believable as a man with a past with violence as long as much as he has tattoos. Some say the ending is a bit Hollywood-y, but I say that judging by the film preceding it, this one victory actually feels very Pyrrhic.

Gomorra, Italy 2008
Director: Matteo Garrone

Like the non-fiction book it's based on, Gomorra aims to reveal the grittiness of the murder trade. The film features five different stories, each of which touches upon Italian mafia. And in the world of Neapolitan organized crime syndicate Camorra, there's no sense of family or honor. It's a dog-eat-dog world where lives could end brutally just like that. And it doesn't just cover the more familiar mob-forced industries such as drugs and murder trade, but also things like industrial toxic dumps and immigrant sweatshops. The mafia's corruption of the land goes deep. There are some parallels to Berlusconi's rule in Italy to be found.

The movie plays like Mean Streets, in that it reveals the insecurities covered by the macho attitude of petty crooks. The Scarface-like gangster glamour turns out to be just an ideal for long-suffering boys dreaming of a better future. Image-wise, the film is rough and cold, like the world it is depicting. The film lurches on pretty slow, but I do believe that this is one of the more realistic mafia movies. 

In Bruges
UK/USA, 2008 
Director: Martin McDonagh

Bruges - big fucking deal. Such is the equivelent of what mob hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) lets out of his motor mouth to his partner-in-crime Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who's a lot more into the Belgian city's medieval art. However, Ray carries within himself massive guilt over their last botched operation that got innocents killed. That's also why the men are sent to Bruges until things cool down. But their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) also has bigger plans in mind. Also getting mixed up in the whole affair are a pretty young actress Chloe, Harry's poor inanimate telephone, a pregnant innkeeper and a cranky and melodramatic dwarf.

The result is a hilarious little English black crime-comedy. There has been a need for this sort of thing, since Guy Ritchie stopped making good films. The film wisely steers away from some of the modern potholes this kind of film might fall into, such as too overloaded postmodernism and a feeling that the makers think they are cleverer than they really are (See also: Lucky Number Slevin). It's a well-written and constructed piece of work. And funny to boot. YOU'RE AN INANIMATE FUCKING OBJECT!

Mesrine - Killer Instinct & Public Enemy no. 1 
L'instinct de mort / L'ennemi public no. 1
France, 2008
Director: Jean-François Richet

The true story of the most notorious criminal in France was so epic, they couldn't confine it in a single film. Jacques Mesrine lived a life that spans almost all sub-genres of crime films: he was a gangster, a bankrobber, an outlaw, a terrorist, a kidnapper, a scourge of the police, a convict, an escapee and a self-made legend. The first film is based on Mesrine's own autobiography, which he wrote in jail. But there was so much true accounts of what he did after that, they based the latter film on them.

The first film is inevitably a rise to power, with Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) having fun doing crimes and picking up girls as he goes on. The most interesting part is the one that deals with his family. Mesrine blames his father for being too timid towards his mom's rules. He might as well blame him for allowing to become what he was. A huge action set-piece about an assault to a prison ends the first part memorably. The latter part is mostly about Mesrine in jail, pining to connect with his daughter, but refusing to cave in to the system that wants to change him. The society will, of course eventually destroy him.

Vincent Cassel is wonderful as the flamboyant criminal. With all his dirty deeds, he is the sort that we have to root for - he doesn't seem rotten to the core, but rather sees himself as a sort of rebel. Cassel is also believably aged through the films. The rest of the cast is filled with a who's who of famous French actors from Gerard Depardieu to Mathieu Amalric and from Cécile De France to Anne Consigny.

A Prophet 
Un prophéte, France/Italy 2009
Director: Jacques Audriard

Jacques Audriard is a clear auteur. He has brought out whole new sides of crime movies probably more effective than anyone else last decade. A Beat That My Heart Skipped is a great film, but owes a little too much to James Toback's Fingers. Better is Audriard's follow-up, that breaks the form of conventional gangster films. In the career of every career criminal, there is a point where you serve time in jail. But Audriard makes this just the set-up. It's the prison that will corrupt the mind of a young convict Malik (Tahir Raham). As a place filled with dangerous people, he is forced to seek protection from some organized crime types. This all comes with a price and the mob boss's errands soon turn out to include smuggling drugs and murdering people. Both in and out of the jail. When Malik finally earns his freedom, he leaves the joint as a Don.

Audriard doesn't make this transition conventionally smooth. Instead, Rahid bumbles clumsily through his odd jobs, but manages to survive by luck. In a key scene his life is spared by a rival criminal as he remembers a dream about a deer which their car is about to smash into. Violence in the film has real consequences and we see the affect doing such brutal deeds has for a first-timer. But the prison as an Animal Factory has these sorts of Darwininan rules and thus begins the road to survival. Raham does unbelievably convincing work here. His thoughts are not usually easy to read from his face. Also, although he's identified as an Arab in the film, this is used to make him at odds with the hostile environment. Everyone can identify with that, and his need for survival. At the same spot, we'd probably do the same if we could be as fast-thinking. This identification is what makes the point where the plot eventually leads us a lot more chilling.

UK/USA, 2000
Director: Guy Ritchie

Snatch is really the kind of film that shouldn't work at all. It moves lightning-fast, has too many characters to keep track of, and isn't really about anything too deep. Just a lark. But Director/Writer Guy Ritchie managed to capture lightning in a bottle with this one. He's since desperately tried to duplicate the effect to no avail until he finally sold out to Hollywood. But let's not hold that (or  marrying Madonna) against him or the film.

In a nutshell, the story goes that unlicenced boxing promoters Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy get orders from a mob boss to fix up a match. He arranges for a promising young gypsy (an almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt) to take the place of their fighter, as he had beaten the champ in a bar scrap. At the same time some very dangerous criminals arrive to England to seach for a stolen jewel that's gotten lost on the way to its new owner. And from there on it gets a bit more complicated.

From the script's twists and turns to the hilarious dialogue, the film is all about fun for the lads. The fun extends to big Hollywood actors such as Pitt and Benicio del Toro doing small roles that won't do them any favours in their CV. The film is so fast it also rewards repeat viewings to catch everything. The ultra-polished direction from the look of the film to the editing shows a cockiness from Ritchie's part, but at least here he knew exactly what he was doing.

The 25th Hour
USA, 2002
Director: Spike Lee

The hardest film for me to decide whether I should include here, was this. One could argue that it's not about Criminal activity per se. Rather, it focuses rather on human relationships, quite like a Greek Tragedy (or a drama film if you will). Yet it is unmistakably about a drug dealer facing a prison sentence. And besides, I've already got too many films to fit in my inevitable Drama 00's post.

Monty Brogan has only 24 hours before a seven-year sentence starts. He goes through his life with the help of his girlfriend, his dog, his father and his two best friends. Part of him is filled with hate. He lets it out in a memorable scene in front of a mirror. Yet he comes to realize the reason prison is so hard for him is the love he has for his surroundings, topped with a big dose of fear of the unknown. His friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper) also go through crises of self-confidence. The first, a high school English teacher, suffers from loneliness and his lust for his sexy female student. The latter's crisis comes from realizing he can't really keep their friendship together or even help Monty as much as he'd like to. From a self-confident stockbroker the realization of some things being out of his power is world-shattering.

Spike Lee filled this with iconography related to New York. It is clearly a response to the attack the city suffered in 9/11 the previous year. Yet Lee never gets over-sentimental or rubs our faces with it. Instead he makes the Spirit of the multicultural City just a thing Monty is missing out on when he's in prison. Lee uses all the different ethnicities and varying people to create a colorful representation of New York as a home for even those that feel lost.

It should be remembered also, that Lee directed the fun and slick, albeit rather conventional heist movie Inside Man. It was close of getting a nod in the bubbling under list.

Bubbling Under: 
The Beat That My Heart Skipped, 2005; Layer Cake, 2004; Public Enemies, 2009; Sexy Beast, 2000; Traffic, 2000

To be seen:
American Gangster, 2007; Election I & II (2005, 2006); Read My Lips (2001)


  1. Jaahas, pitää siis joku päivä napata töistä mukaan tuo Dissappearence of Alice Greed. Olen sitä jo pitkään harkinnut, mutta pakko kai tuo on nyt katsoa, kun täällä tuo elokuva vilahtelee usein.

    Ja kiitos kun muistutit tuosta Kukkoilijat (tai mikä lie typerä suomennos In Bruges -leffalle nyt olikaan) -elokuvasta. Se oli aika erikoinen pläjäys kieltämättä.

  2. Käsittääkseni Kukkoilijat-nimen takana oli pienen budjetin elokuvan maahantuontia sponsoroinut Kukko-olut. Kukaan ei ilmeisesti älynnyt kysyä Belgian matkailuvirastolta, olisiko heiltä herunut lantti tai pari.



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