The Appeal of Crime Films

Although I’ve seen most of the well-known crime films, I’ve never found the genre particularly appealing. The main reason is I prefer to have characters that I can relate to — or at least want the best for, and such characters are seldom found in the average crime film. And although they rarely end well for the criminal characters, there is certainly an element of glorification of the lives they live in most of them — whether or not the main characters live or die. Most people remember the scenes of Vito Corleone calmly issuing orders to underlings much better than they do the final scene of him keeling over and dying pathetically among grape vines. Similarly, most remember Henry Hill’s rise and success in the criminal underworld much better than the cowardly way he exited it. 

I do understand why people see appeal in the larger-than-life characters and the shadowy parallel world they live in. Beyond that, I think there is a much more concrete appeal that is ironically enough closer to reality than the films I prefer. That is that they live in a world where consequences exist. Where what you say and what you do matters. Where you have to be willing to use force to defend what you have or to obtain more. A world where most of the background characters want to keep out of the frame as much as possible. 

This came to me recently while watching The Gentlemen, a film by Guy Ritchie that I really enjoyed. I’ve now watched it three times and enjoyed every viewing. In this film, the lead protagonist Mickey (played by Matthew McConaughey),  is easier to sympathise with though certainly not a good man. The average viewer probably doesn’t see anything wrong with smoking cannabis — let alone selling it but even allowing for this, he is still operating and illegal business and is more than willing to shed blood to hold onto it. 

What makes him more sympathetic is mainly the personal magnetism of the lead actor but more importantly that he is in no way debauched. He has a wife who he is shown to be almost fanatically faithful to and he is good to (and clearly well-liked), by all his employees. That a significant part of the plot is his desire to be out of the business further helps his appeal with the audience. Nonetheless, he still isn’t a good man and were he real, you definitely wouldn’t want to cross him. 

The further appeal is in the supporting characters who are all scoundrels but appealing in their way. Probably the only character that comes close to good is Coach (played by Colin Farrell), who is a man trying to keep young men out of the criminal life and is roped into the film’s events quite against his will.  Again, the personal magnetism of the actor also greatly helps here.

Beyond all of this though, what matters is that this shows a world where there are definite consequences. The life Mickey has pursued is dangerous and the wealth and success he possesses is neither acquired nor kept easily. There are constant threats to his operations and those he cares about. Most tellingly, the violent conflicts in the film are brought about by his desire to leave this world — which to his criminal competitors is only a sign of weakness to be taken advantage of. It is only by his willingness to respond ruthlessly in kind to these threats, that he is able to hold on to his evil little empire. And the events of the film, as well as the somewhat ambiguous conclusion, show it was at best, a near-run thing. 

One final aspect of the film is the almost total lack of PC niceties usually required by characters. Portraying drug-dealers, thieves and murderers as people who would nonetheless take studious care not to offend minorities would make little sense and so the language flows much more freely than it can in other genres. I note that the film in discussion was still criticised for “racism” towards Asians but it doesn’t seem to have hurt Ritchie’s career since. These critics also obviously aren’t literate enough to see the significance of Mickey asking for all he is owed and a pound of flesh from the Jewish antagonist at the film’s climax either.

I’ve focused on The Gentlemen because it is the most recent film I have seen but much of this crosses over in other films including The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, The Departed from probably in The Sopranos television series though I’ve never watched it. Moreover, in none of these films that I can recall do the criminals ever “win”. Even when they survive until the end credits, they are usually diminished in some way. As akin to the criminal underworld as the film industry is, the writers seem to understand that having the bad guys get away with it just wouldn’t work with audiences.

Yes, there are exceptions but I can only recall these happening in heist films which are usually limited to theft which while wrong, is a lot easier to sympathise with than murder, extorsion and drug-dealing. The targets of theft are also usually portrayed as worse than the thieves and so can more easily be seen as Robin Hoods even while seeking to enrich themselves.

Although I tend to prefer the more fun action/adventure genre, there is an element of realism in crime films that is often not see in other genres. This is what I think appeals to audiences though they may not be able to vocalise it.

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