Today, I saw the trailers for two different mob movies, Stand Up Guys and Killing Them Softly. Both trailers have their funny lines, Oldies soundtracks, and flashes of firearms. They look, in many ways, identical—a bunch of famous actors, with nothing left to prove, wander around Gangland looking badass. They reassess old relationships, and either Christopher Walken or Brad Pitt is assigned to kill the main character. One movie belongs to Roadside Attractions, the other to five different studios.
Back in the 1990s, all anybody could make was lazy mobster movies. We had no drama in our Clinton-era lives, and screenwriters knew that shootouts and sex were essential to a successful movie. So Hollywood made The Mexican, Analyze This, The Limey, Snake Eyes, Payback, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Bangkok Dangerous, Hard Eight, Last Man Standing, Ronin, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Suicide Kings, Boondock Saints, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, plus untold others.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore some of these films, and a few are Sunday afternoon favorites. But they’re not exactly movies about the mob. The mob just makes them interesting. If Grosse Pointe Blank didn’t feature an assassin evading hit-men, it would look like the last act of Our Town. Without organized crime, The Mexican would be about Brad Pitt’s car breaking down in Mexico and James Gandolfini being gay. Analyze This would be a real-time therapy session with a middle-aged man, but not starring Gabriel Byrne, who, in turn, would only be a washed-up businessman in The Usual Suspects. Take away the witty sociopaths, and Guy Ritchie would actually cease to exist.
Some movies are about the mob, but they are rarer. Serious films like Donnie Brasco and Gomorrah don’t come around often, but when they do, they open up a frightening and psychologically complicated world. They are not just a bunch of white guys in black leather jackets standing around with shotguns. Whether you lean toward The Godfather or Goodfellas, these are the stories that make the mob real. Maybe Stand Up Guys will win everybody a round of Oscars. It doesn’t come out till January, after all, and anything could happen. But I doubt 100 Stand Up Guys could stand up to one minute of City of God.
The problem with lazy mob movies is that they’re easy—easier than the most generic CIA movies, which have taken Hollywood by storm. Mobsters don’t have a protocol. They don’t follow traditional laws, so they improvise, often creatively. They’re usually men, and men with a lot of personality. As a rule, they’re not Black Belts or computer whizzes or even well traveled. Usually, they’re just working-class guys who can shoot straight. Any actor who can suppress a smile and pull a trigger can play a mobster. The caricature is so routine, the audience barely flinches at the broken fingers and ridiculous names. So they call him Lucky? Wow, didn’t see that one coming.
“I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own,” murmurs Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly.
Oh, God. So much for Hollywood’s Prince of Peace.
We got a break from lazy mobster movies because terrorism and spy thrillers took their place. Who wants to meddle with a bunch of no-account bank robbers when Jack Bauer is saving the world? After September 11th, even Tony Soprano looked annoyed that he was stuck in a mob show—the greatest mob saga of all time, mind you. Hollywood shifted its attention toward spies and law enforcement, lawyers and vigilantes, the folks who stop mobsters, not the mobsters themselves. It’s hard to say whether thug-comedies like Stand Up Guys and Killing Them Softly will revive this mediocre little genre, but I’m not thrilled about that prospect. I love me some Boondock Saints, but if they ever get around to making Playing God II, Bobby I’s is gonna break some fingers.