By Niko Vorobyov for Gangsters Inc.
It’s quarantine so we’re all stuck at home looking to kill time. Hollywood seems to have a monopoly on the gangster genre, from the wiseguy epics of Coppola and Scorsese to the hood movies like Menace II Society, but what of the other 194 countries in the world? So grab some popcorn, sit down and check out these movies about Chinese Triads, Danish drug pushers, Indonesian hitmen, Brazilian special police, Italian Mafiosi, and a lot more shady characters blasting across your screen from around the globe.
Let’s open this list with old Uncle Chop-chop. Chopper stars Eric Bana as Mark Brandon ‘Chopper’ Read, the Melbourne underworld’s force of nature who makes his living robbing plastic gangsters like Neville fucking Bartos. Based on the actual Chopper’s autobiography, you might be left thinking how the fuck did he survive pissing off the entire Aussie mob? But as the real Chopper says: never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.
Bullhead is the tale of gangster farmers starring Matthias Schoenaerts as an enforcer with all brawn and no balls (you’ll see what I mean), based on the real murder of a cattle inspector in the nineties. More recently, Gangsta (Patser) feels like either Martin Scorsese on shrooms or his hyperactive Belgian cousin. Directed by Bad Boys 3’s Adil & Bilall, Gangsta tells the true(ish) story of a cocaine heist in the Belgian port of Antwerp that sparked a mob war across Morocco, Antwerp and Amsterdam.
Everyone knows City of God, the tropical version of Goodfellas. But you also need to check out Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad). Directed by Narcos’ José Padilha, Elite Squad’s a guns-blazing look at BOPE, the police special forces sent to clear out the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro infested with a literal army of drug traffickers. The second one’s storyline is even better, dealing with corruption within the police that goes all the way to the top.
British gangster films are almost a genre in themselves. In the 80s classic The Long Good Friday, Bob Hoskins plays an East London kingpin whose plans to go straight by developing the docklands (later to become Canary Wharf) are scuttled by a mysterious foe. His girlfriend was played by Helen Mirren, who starred as another long-suffering gangster’s moll in the artfully weird The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Hoskins also starred in another tough-guy classic, Mona Lisa, as a driver for a high-class hooker in trouble with her pimps.
In 1998 Guy Ritchie jumped on the scene with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and the most razor-sharp lines this side of Tarantino: “How is it that your fucking stupid soon-to-be-dead friends thought they might be able to steal my cannabis then sell it back to me? Is this some white cunts joke that black cunts don’t get? Cos I’m not fucking laughing, Ni-ko-las.”). Spawning a series of copycats (the 51st State, I’m looking at you), Guy then repeated the formula with Snatch, and The Gentlemen. Meanwhile Ritchie’s old producer Matthew Vaughn became an accomplished director in his own right, making his debut in the ultra-cool Layer Cake with Daniel Craig. As soon as I saw him, I knew Craig would be the next OO7.
Not actually set in Britain and the two lead actors are Irish, but the funniest film on this list has got to be In Bruges, about a pair of hitmen vacationing in Belgium’s best-preserved medieval city. Expect racist midgets and lovely landmarks.
One theme you’ll find running on this list is the small screen’s just as gripping as the big. In McMafia, based on Misha Glenny’s book, the son of a wealthy Russian exile with a violent past finds himself sucked in the old family business and a global conspiracy stretching from Mexico to Mumbai and Tel Aviv. But the best is Netflix’s Top Boy: the first two seasons are OK but the third’s on another level. Well-shot, well-acted, and for those of us who’ve been on London’s crime scene, authentic.
Honourable mentions: Shifty, London to Brighton.
You know those scenes when the hero dives dodging bullets, firing a gun in each hand in slow-mo? John Woo movies invented that shit. Taking place in the violent world of Hong Kong’s triads, The Killer and A Better Tomorrow were just warm-ups for Hard Boiled, the greatest, purest action movie ever made. Paper-thin on plot — an undercover cop and a jazz-playing detective bring down a ruthless mobster and his crew — but that’s not why you came here. You came for ridiculously-choreographed gunplay.
Johnnie To’s films are slightly more realistic, like Drug War on the Chinese mainland, or Vengeance, about a French chef on a rampage through the sleazy underbelly of Macau.
You can’t have China on this list without at least one kung-fu movie, & I recommend Kung Fu Hustle. When a group of axe-swinging gangsters try to move in on a slum in 1930s Shanghai, they find the tenets aren’t quite the pushovers they were expecting. Fists go flying in a loving mash-up of every kung-fu flick ever made that sometimes feels like a violent Road Runner cartoon. Speaking of cartoons, last but not least check out Have A Nice Day, a darkly funny animation about several parties trying to get their hands on a stolen bag of cash.
You’ve probably watched Narcos, but Birds of Passage has the most intriguing, and surreal, setting for a Godfather-style crime saga I've ever seen. Taking place in the Guajira desert of northern Colombia amongst the native Wayuu people back in the early days of drug smuggling, when it more about the green than the white, the film is as much about their customs as a rise-and-fall mob story.
Before he moved to Hollywood and made Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn directed the Pusher trilogy about drug-dealing lowlifes in Copenhagen. The first one follows Frank, a mid-level dealer, for a week as he tries to rustle up the cash to pay back Milo, his Serbian supplier. Pusher II follows Frank’s right-hand man, Tony (played by Mads Mikkelsen), after he gets out of jail, and the last one sees Milo in debt to an even more ruthless Albanian gang. 1 & 3 are worth a look.
A few decades ago it was France, not Mexico, that was the main supplier of smack to the United State through the port of Marseilles. The Connection is the true story told with a seventies vibe of Tony Zampa’s heroin ring to New York and the dogged prosecutor (Wolf of Wall Street’s Jean Dujardin) trying to bring him down. 22 Bullets is another Marseilles-set milieu movie loosely based on the legend of Jacky Imbert, who was shot 22 times by Zampa’s crew and came back for vengeance.
But the must-see French gangster film is A Prophet. A young Arab inmate is sent to the big house where a Corsican mafia chief takes him under his wing. It’s not exactly fatherly love: the old man is a nasty piece of work and the other Corsicans treat him like a dog. The young convict starts to learn the ropes, and before long he’s striking his own deals with the blacks, Arabs, gypsies and Italians, like a prison version of Scarface with a Gallic twist.
Time for the creepiest film on this list. In Weimar Germany before Hitler took over, director Fritz Lang made the classic thriller M. A child murderer is on the loose prowling the streets of Berlin, which makes the police turn up the heat on the underworld. Needless to say, none of the crime kingpins are particularly happy about this so they launch a manhunt of their own to catch the killer before he strikes again. A pretty dark movie, both literally and figuratively. If you’re looking for something more recent with a couple of laughs, check out the Netflix series How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast), which is about exactly what you think.
Bollywood, India’s movie industry, has a long history with the mafia both onscreen and off. The problem with Bollywood is what they call a ‘good film’ is wildly different from the rest of the world: butt-numbing length, plenty of song-and-dance numbers, and more over-the-top antics than a Latin soap opera. If you’re going down that road, Sholay is considered a classic of Indian cinema: an action-packed modern-day Western about two heroes hunting down a dacoit (bandit) and his gang terrorizing a village.
If that Bollywood magic isn’t your cup of Assam tea, check out Netflix’s series Sacred Games. An honest but ordinary Sikh policeman gets a call from one of Mumbai’s top dons, cryptically telling him the city will be destroyed in 25 days. What exactly connects the two men and why he made the call unravels over two seasons inspired by real-life intrigue and Hindu-Muslim warfare. There’s no dance-offs, and streaming on Netflix means it’s more down and dirty than the usual Bollywood fare. You’ll even learn to say “motherfucker” in Hindi.
In The Raid, an Indonesian SWAT team is sent to take out a Jakarta crime lord in his high-rise only to get trapped in the building by an army of henchmen. Intense lead-flying, machete-wielding, bone-shattering, head-splattering mayhem ensues. The Raid 2 picks up just moments after as the action spills out into the city with the yakuza, deep-cover cops, prison brawls and the goriest hand-to-hand fight scenes you’ve ever seen.
Unlike American movies, Italians rarely glamourize their gangsters. You barely see the Mafia in Salvatore Giuliano, the story of the infamous bandit, but they’re always there; a sinister force with its grip over Sicily. The mobsters themselves are only secondary characters in The Mafia Only Kills in Summer, a black comedy set against the backdrop of the Corleone clan’s struggle against the state in the 80s. When they are onscreen, mafiosi are usually murdering backstabbers: 100 Steps is based on the murder of anti-Mafia activist Peppino Impastato, and The Traitor stars Pierfrancesco Favino as Tommaso Buscetta, Cosa Nostra’s most famous snitch.
But the best is actually a show: Gomorrah, a bleak Neapolitan crime drama based on Roberto Saviano’s book that plays like a Euro-version of The Wire. Set in Naples, it follows the ups and downs of a crime family in the Camorra, a web of evil which corrupts everything it touches. The Ndrangheta, Russian, Bulgarian, African and Honduran mafiosi also make appearances.
The Harder They Come is about a ganja-selling outlaw on the run from the law while trying to make it big on the reggae scene. I first watched this with my housemates after seeing it on High Times’ list of top stoner movies of all time. It’s a little rough around the edges and the Jamaican patois takes getting used to, but it’s a fun little flick with a killer soundtrack that was actually filmed in the slums of Jamaica in the seventies. Forget shiny Hollywood sets – this is the real shit.
Tarantino’s Kill Bill was a cool introduction, but I’ve found most yakuza films hard to get into: they can be quite slow with confusing storylines, a lot of talk of honor and not much else happening. The yakuza go back hundreds of years to the time of the samurai, and two of the best Japanese mob movies – Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Zatoichi, starring ‘Beat’ Takeshi (of Takeshi’s Castle) – actually take place in that era, swapping pistols for katanas and business suits for kimonos.
Pale Flower is a more modern noir where a tough ex-convict gets involved with a free spirit femme fatale. Pale Flower mixes film noir vibes with cut-off fingers, creepy assassins and gambling dens, but it’s as much about the odd couple’s fucked-up relationship. Look out for a slow-mo kill sequence to rival The Godfather.
A trio of drug-dealing brothers in Beirut cook up an elaborate drug-smuggling plot by setting themselves up as film producers. You see, the film canisters never get scanned going through the airport. But to pull it off they still need to finish the movie. You can catch Very Big Shot on Netflix where it touches on culture clashes between Christians and Muslims, Lebanese politics and the war in Syria.
Hollywood gave us Sicario, but Mexico gave us the gorgeous Stephanie Sigman as a poor young woman forced to be the mistress of a depraved gang boss in Miss Bala. Between intense gun battles and shootouts, it’s a look at Mexico’s brutal drug wars through the eyes of those caught in the middle, with no way out.
A Swedish immigrant Snow Plough Driver of the Year takes his darkly comic revenge on the gang who murdered his son, with a running tally of the deceased (along with their religions) as the bodies pile up In Order of Disappearance.
The Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte has declared a bloody war on drugs, his death squads executing innocent and guilty alike. Taking The Raid’s formula and ramping it up a notch, BuyBust sees a police commando team battling for their lives in a neighborhood that really, really doesn’t want them there. The final shot with camera panning showing a trail of corpses in the slum makes you wonder — was it all worth it?
Ask many Russians and they’ll tell you Brother was not only an iconic crime flick but shows you what it was like growing up in the wild and crazy 1990s. Sergey Bodrov plays Danila, a Chechen war veteran who finds his combat skills put to the test when he visits his brother doing ‘big biznis’ in St Petersburg. Bodrov himself directed the underrated Sisters, about two girls who have to go on the run to escape being kidnapped by the mob. The Russian rock soundtrack to all three is badass but Brother 2, where Danila takes on the Chicago mob, is to be enjoyed ironically.
Like with Italy, the best is actually on the small screen: Brigada (also called “Law of the Lawless”), an epic miniseries charting the lives of four friends through the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chechen wars and the (literally) cutthroat capitalism of Russia in the 1990s.
Rane (Wounds) is a super-twisted dark comedy satire (think Trainspotting) about two young hoodlums in the collapse of Yugoslavia’s society in the 1990s. Not considered as funny by Serbs who actually had to live through it.
South Africa’s certainly got one of the most colorful (and murderous) underworld histories. Jerusalema is one of your standard rise-of-an-empire stories, with the twist it takes place in the townships (ghettos) of Johannesburg after apartheid, with some interloping Nigerian gangsters. But the real one to watch is Tsotsi, an interesting take on the ‘Three Men and a Baby’ set-up as a carjacker picks up a little more than he bargained for with his new ride.
This was the year everyone finally discovered Korean cinema thanks to Parasite, but I was into that shit way before it was cool. A Bittersweet Life was one of the first Korean films I’d seen: a stylish, blood-soaked, neo-noir about a mob enforcer taking revenge on his old gang. Then there’s The Yellow Sea, an equally gripping thriller about a man from China’s poor Korean minority who’s drafted in to do a hit in South Korea while being chased by both sides of the law.
Chengdu (Friend) is also worth a look.
With gang warfare in Sweden making headlines over the last few years it might be time to check out Snabba Cash (Easy Money) about a Swedish yuppie who tries his hand at the cocaine business with a multicultural cast of villains, including Arab coke dealers, Serbian thugs and Chilean middlemen.
Niko Vorobyov is a government-certified (convicted) drug dealer turned writer and author of the book Dopeworld, about the international drug trade. You can follow him @Lemmiwinks_III
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