Although it was extremely controversial upon its initial release, Brian De Palma’s Scarface has come to be regarded as one of the greatest gangster films of all time. It’s the quintessential rise-and-fall story, charting a Cuban immigrant as he rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld to become Miami’s leading drug kingpin, at the cost of his sanity, his grasp of reality, and ultimately, his life.
It’s a three-hour movie, so there’s a lot to pick up on upon subsequent viewings, but when you get sick of that, here are 10 Sprawling Crime Sagas To Watch If You Like Scarface.
Sergio Leone’s best-known films are spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but he came to Hollywood to helm a pretty definitive cinematic take on crime and corruption in the United States: Once Upon a Time in America.
The U.S. release butchered Leone’s film to make its runtime a more audience-friendly 139 minutes, but his original cut, which was left untampered with for the European release, is 229 minutes long. That might seem excessive, since it’s almost four hours in length, but it’s an epic saga in the truest sense, albeit with the focus on character never wavering.
Scarface has been criticized for glamorizing the lifestyle of a drug lord. It’s a popular movie among actual gangsters and it revels in scenes of violence and depravity. But ultimately, the tragic hero of the story is brought down. The same goes for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which was accused of making the lives of the corrupt stockbrokers it portrayed – namely its subject, Jordan Belfort – look fun.
And that lifestyle does look fun, sure, until the feds come knocking and the drug addictions reach their peak and Belfort’s whole world starts to collapse. A life of excess is just that – it’s too much – and the movie gets that across.
The true story of an undercover investigation launched by the FBI, Donnie Brasco stars Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in an intriguing on-screen pairing. Depp plays an FBI agent who goes undercover with a criminal organization using the alias Donnie Brasco and starts working with Pacino’s aging gangster character.
The two drum up a genuine relationship, which leads the agent to test his morals as his operation keeps him in the Donnie Brasco persona for six years and he develops real friendships. Paul Attanasio’s screenplay, which deftly builds on the relationship of its two lead characters, was rightly nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Roman Polanski’s mysterious 1974 masterpiece Chinatown was one of the first and easily most successful attempt to bring the gripping elements of the film noir genre into the modern day, maintaining the intriguing detective story, but swapping black-and-white film for color.
Aside from being a simple neo-noir, the film also has shocking plot twists that turn it into a psychological thriller. The film’s complex narrative inspired by the California Water Wars won Robert Towne an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, while Jack Nicholson’s impressive lead performance elevates Chinatown from a run-of-the-mill crime movie to something more special than that.
Eastern Promises is most famous for its scene set in a Turkish bath in which a naked Viggo Mortensen (who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance) gets into a bloody skirmish with a couple of knife-wielding assassins, but the film as a whole is just as intense and incredibly crafted.
David Cronenberg’s macabre direction pairs beautifully with Steven Knight’s typically gut-wrenching screenplay to deliver a grisly crime movie that sells the harsh reality of London’s criminal underworld as an unsuspecting midwife is drawn into the world of the Russian Mafia when she delivers a trafficked 14-year-old prostitute’s baby.
Frank Lucas, the real-life subject of Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, died a few weeks ago. He was one of the most infamous drug traffickers of all time, famous for his business acumen (cutting out middlemen and shipping heroin straight from Southeast Asia to his criminal empire in Harlem) and his claim that he smuggled drugs into the U.S. in the coffins of American soldiers.
Scott’s film fictionalized some aspects of Lucas’ life for dramatic effect, but Denzel Washington gives a powerhouse performance in the lead role, and Russell Crowe gives strong support as the detective who eventually brought him down.
With Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese rocked the art of filmmaking to its core. He started the story in the middle, then dipped in and out of the beginning and end to give you a hectic moviegoing experience that’s as akin to the chaotic lifestyle of a mobster as a movie can be.
It’s the story of Henry Hill, a New York kid who grew up with aspirations of being a gangster and ended up ratting out all his friends to protect his family and being stuck in the suburban life he hoped to avoid when he goes into witness protection. The movie’s over two hours long, but it’s so fast-paced and sharply edited that it doesn’t feel like it.
Quentin Tarantino sophomore effort is inspired by the violent crime stories published in pulp magazines, telling the intertwining stories of two mob hitmen, their boss’ wife, and a boxer who refuses to throw a fight. The movie was so groundbreaking and awesome that it took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and every screenwriter in Hollywood has tried and failed to emulate its nonlinear narrative structure and garish dialogue style over the past 25 years.
Pulp Fiction still remains a timeless classic. There’s something memorable in every scene, with so many characters, settings, costumes, soundtrack choices, and lines of dialogue that have justly become iconographic.
Michael Mann’s Heat is famous for being the first movie to pair up Al Pacino and Robert De Niro on-screen, but it doesn’t rely on that gimmick alone. It’s also a breathtaking piece of action cinema with an engaging plot. Its wide scope is a result of the screenplay being adapted from a TV series that Mann conceived and failed to get produced.
Heat is a cat-and-mouse thriller about an LAPD detective’s (Pacino) ruthless pursuit of an infamous bank robber (De Niro). With a 170-minute runtime, it’s not a breezy watch, but it’s exciting enough to keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire duration.
Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece is the first name in sprawling cinematic crime sagas. Like Scarface, The Godfather is a masterclass of acting that is, thematically, a study of the dark side of the American Dream.
Al Pacino plays Michael Corleone’s fall from decorated war hero to mob boss in The Godfather as powerfully as Tony Montana’s fall into drug addiction in Scarface, while Marlon Brando, Talia Shire, and James Caan round out one of the finest ensemble casts in film history. At the time of its release, The Godfather was the highest grossing film of all time, and it’s not hard to see why.