Organized crime has plenty of nicknames. Some call it the mob, others the mafia. The men that do the dirty work are wiseguys, made men, or just good old-fashioned gangsters. Hollywood has a long-standing history of telling the harrowing tales of men and women embroiled with the criminal element. From Angels With Dirty Faces to Black Mass, these movies bring to life legendary gangsters and mafia men, or tell stories of mobsters so iconic that we almost believe they were real. In recent years, the mob has even made inroads on TV, with classic hits like The Wire and The Sopranos making it big on the small screen.
Like any popular subgenre, these movies tend to recycle themes from time to time — to the point that the storylines can start to feel pretty predictable. From wardrobe to character backstory, mob movies have really honed in on a standard style of storytelling — so much so that if you’re looking for an original twist or take, you might as well “fugetaboutit.” Here are the 15 Worst Gangster Movie Cliches That Just Keep Being Used.
15. We’re gonna need a montage
Many gangster movies follow a fairly specific formula: a well-meaning guy on the up-and-up is seduced into a life of crime by some charismatic wiseguys. Before he knows it, he’s in over his head. Let’s be real: it’s a great story, no matter how many times we see it. The best versions often span years, or even decades, as the protagonist navigates through the organized crime ring and works his way to the top.
That’s where the montage comes in. In The Departed, we got to watch Leonardo DiCaprio spend a whole year in prison (and get surprisingly buff) in under two minutes. The Godfather managed to tie up nearly all of the loose ends surrounding the five families with its taut, perfectly timed death-a-palooza montage. Then, there was Scarface’s nearly perfect “Push It To the Limit” sequence, in which Tony Montana rakes in some serious cash, expands his empire, marries his dream girl, and for some reason thinks it’s a good idea to take her to see the tiger he owns right after they exchange their vows. By the end of the montage, we also get hints that their seemingly perfect life isn’t quite as fantastic as it looks.
14. Someone in law enforcement is always in cahoots
In many crime dramas, there are two sides — the bad guys, and the good guys; the criminals and the cops. In many gangster movies, though, we see that there are many shades of grey where legality is concerned. More often than not, there’s at least one member of law enforcement who’s enjoying a kickback from the mafia, or helping to cover up a mob murder.
In L.A. Confidential, multiple members of the police force, including a captain, have a hand in the city’s dirty deeds. In The Departed, Matt Damon’s seemingly straight-and-narrow Boston PD lieutenant is working overtime to help Jack Nicholson’s citywide criminal operation. The Untouchables reveals that the chief of the Chicago Police Department himself is corrupt, and helping keep Al Capone in business. Making the police a part of the crime certainly ups the ante in mob movies, because it makes it harder for the characters to know who to trust. It can also make it harder for us to keep track of who’s on who’s side.
13. A mobster’s gotta have a code
Mobsters may be thieves, liars, murderers and thugs, but you can’t say they don’t have respect for their fellow mafia men. At least, that’s the feeling we’ve gotten from watching years of gangster movies. Time and time again, the criminals on screen make it clear that while they’re perfectly happy to break the law, they’ll never break their sacred code. That’s both because they seem to truly honor it, and because they know they’ll probably end up dead if they do, in fact, stray from the rules their clan has set forth.
Sometimes, the code is pretty simple. In The Godfather, it’s all about loyalty for the Corleones, and the best way to get on the Don’s bad side is to go against the family. The rules in Goodfellas are equally clear: “never rat on your friends, and keep your mouth shut.” Other times, the code gets oddly specific. Scarface‘s Tony Montana will do just about anything, including mow down all of his enemies, but he won’t kill women or children. Apparently, everyone has to have standards, even a coked-out drug kingpin.
12. The gangster mentor
If every gangster has to have a set of rules to live by, then he’s going to need someone to teach him how it’s done, too. That’s where the mob mentor comes in. This often world-weary wiseguy is a staple in gangster movies, and he often serves a singular purpose. He’s there to show the main character the ropes, to guide him to a life of crime and impart his wisdom, before he inevitably gets picked up by the cops, knocked down by a rival, or otherwise put out of commission.
In Donnie Brasco, the titular character — an undercover FBI agent — is ushered into the world of a New York crime family by Lefty Ruggiero. In Reservoir Dogs, Mr. White takes Mr. Orange under his wing, until he realizes that he may not be able to trust him at all. Even The Godfather himself, Vito Corleone, takes it upon himself to teach his son Michael how to figure out who’s going behind his back. All of these men work tirelessly to help train the men who they expect will take over for them, so it’s not like they’re exactly selfless. Still, they’re the closest thing that a made man has to a friend.
11. Gangsters always have sexy girlfriends
When the criminals in movies start to reap the fruits of their labor, they’re not shy about showing them off. That’s especially true when it comes to their girlfriends. The women in gangster movies are gorgeous and seductive, drawn to the glamorous lifestyle that comes with organized crime. They rarely get a chance to become fully realized characters, though, and if they do, we never really see them in a positive light.
There was Casino‘s Ginger, who seduced her husband and then proceeded to make his life hell with her penchant for cheating and drinking. Elvira, Tony Montana’s wife in Scarface, reels him in and then proceeds to devote most of her life and attention to her cocaine habit. More often than not, the women in gangster movies are viewed as objects and treated as villains, from a narrative perspective. They either hang out in the background or serve as a dramatic foil for their already troubled boyfriends or husbands. It’s annoying, sure, but most of these movies make it pretty clear that the mob is a man’s world, baby.
10. Gangsters usually mistreat their wives
The mobster’s world, by the way, can be pretty treacherous for women, whether they want to be involved or not. That’s because, on many occasions, they’re treated pretty terribly by the men in their lives. That’s especially true if they try to stand up for themselves, or to talk their husbands out of their illegal activities. Take Connie Corleone in The Godfather. Her husband, Carlo Rizzi, beat her within an inch of her life while she was pregnant. Her sister-in-law, Kay, was more or less shut out of her husband Michael’s life after she confronted him about his mafia dealings. Later, she became so concerned about her husband’s mafia dealings that she aborted her child because she didn’t think it would be safe — and he slapped her when he found out.
The women in The Godfather aren’t the only ones living through a less-than-stellar marital situation, either. In Goodfellas, Karen Hill confronted her husband for staying out all night, and he threw a lamp at her in retaliation. For some reason, Hollywood’s mafia men have no trouble respecting their fellow mobsters, but really can’t be bothered to do the same for their wives.
9. Gangsters always seem to have unresolved problems with their fathers
There’s not a lot of deep psychological analysis going on in most mobster movies — Hollywood left most of that to the small screen and The Sopranos. However, there does seem to be a pretty common thread running through most gangster movies when it comes to emotional baggage. Though the men we meet in these films are tough, often world-weary, and prepared to kill at the blink of an eye, at their core, they really just seem to want to prove themselves to their father figures. That’s certainly true of the Corleone sons, all of whom go to pretty extreme measures to prove they’re worthy of the family name.
Sometimes, like in The Departed and A Bronx Tale, that person isn’t necessarily a parent, but a surrogate of sorts. In Road to Perdition, we got a triple dose of paternal issues. Michael, a man who loves his surrogate father, John, deeply despite the terrible things he’s had to do for him; Connor, who feels betrayed by his father’s close relationship with Michael, and Michael Jr., who has to live with his dad even after he learns the truth about his criminal lifestyle. Maybe these guys should get some therapy after all.
8. Mobsters always meet for an intense restaurant face-off
With all of the double-crossing, code-breaking, and high-stakes criminality involved in gangster movies, it’s a no-brainer that the characters involved will have some serious trust issues. Usually, they try to suss out who’s working against them, and for some strange reason, they always seem to want to do that while sitting down at a coffee shop or a restaurant. These meetings are a battle of the wills — one character wants to pin the other down, or both characters are trying to size one another up.
In Heat, a career criminal and the LAPD officer that’s hunting him meet for a cup of coffee and a chance to remind each other that they plan on being the last man standing. One of the most pivotal moments in The Godfather occurs when Michael Corleone sits down at an Italian restaurant to talk with, and eventually shoot, the men who tried to kill his father. In The Departed, Frank tries to figure out whether or not Billy is trustworthy by grilling him over drinks at a dive bar he owns.
Even if these scenes feel predictable by now, they still manage to draw us in. That’s because no matter how often we have to watch two dudes stare each other down in a public place, we can never be sure which one is going to come out ahead.
7. There’s always a rat (and it’s usually the character you like most)
A mob movie isn’t a mob movie without at least one rat. It’s usually the guy that got screwed over by one of his fellow gangsters, or someone who’s been chronically overlooked when it comes to getting a big job or a bit more responsibility. Or sometimes, they’re just trying to do the right thing.
In The Godfather Part 2, we learned that Michael’s little brother, Fredo, had (perhaps accidentally) revealed too much information about the family business to one of the Corleones’ adversaries. In Serpico, the titular hero wound up beaten within an inch of his life for snitching on his fellow corrupt police officers. Most of the main characters in The Departed wound up dead because they’d been double-crossing one another. Usually, the rat ends up shot in the head — or sleeping with the fishes, if you will — because obviously, the mob’s not gonna let them off that easy. That’s pretty unfortunate, because a lot of the time, they’re some of the most likable characters.
6. Everyone loves to wear dark suits
We already know that gangsters have a moral code. Apparently, they also have a dress code. That seems to be the case a lot of the time, anyway. From classics like City Streets and Angels With Dirty Faces and to more recent films like Eastern Promises and Reservoir Dogs, it seems like mobsters tend to favor a particular style of clothing. Black suits and ties are par for the course, and while they look classy as hell, they’re not always practical. For one thing, it’s hard to get blood out of white dress shirts. For another, on the mean streets that many of these men do their business on, formal attire is a little bit conspicuous.
5. There’s not much diversity
Take a look at any of the classic gangster movies. From the earliest mob flicks up through Scarface and Once Upon a Time in America, most, if not all of the actors and characters, were white. Now, in some cases, it was a logical choice; many of the most famous and beloved gangster movies of the ’70s and ’80s, for example, centered around Italian mafia families. Despite this fact, the lack of diversity in these films is noticeable, mostly because it is so persistent. In other cases, there was definitely some whitewashing at play when it came to casting mobster movies. The most obvious example is Al Pacino, an Italian actor, who was cast to play Tony Montana, a Cuban immigrant. (Thankfully, the remake seems to be sidestepping this one.)
As a general rule, when films offer up different perspectives, it makes their stories more interesting. In a genre like this, which is obviously rife with some redundant storytelling, adding a little bit of diversity certainly couldn’t hurt. Overseas, there have been some fantastic gangster movies, like Japanese Yazuka films, City of God, and Infernal Affairs, which inspired The Departed. Hollywood has started to expand its horizons a bit, too, at least, with films like Carlito’s Way and American Gangster, though such forward thinking definitely isn’t the norm.
4. Immigrants are always criminals
Gangster movies often paint a flashy, exciting picture of the lives of criminal masterminds. Unfortunately, they’ve also helped perpetuate a pretty ugly stereotype – that immigrants come to this country to become criminals. We’ve seen it in Scarface, Gangs of New York, Road to Perdition, and The Public Enemy. Hell, even The Godfather series goes out of its way to trace Vito Corleone’s immigrant roots to his eventual foray into the mafia. In each of these films, immigrants from Cuba, Ireland, and Italy are prepared to do whatever they can to make it in America, even if it involves street brawls, murdering children, and large-scale drug trafficking.
Sure, it’s probably easier to sell the whole sexy-and-dangerous aspect of mob life when you’re telling the story of a scrappy young man with an exotic accent. By making most mob movies about bad immigrants, though, Hollywood has contributed to the unfortunate idea that people who come to this country in search of a better life are the bad guys.
3. The rags-to-riches story
If there’s one thing that mob movies do better than maybe any other genre out there, it’s show us how the main characters used organized crime to really pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There’s Rico Bandello in Little Caesar, who starts out as a small-time criminal and ends up running one of Chicago’s biggest gangs. There’s Henry Hill, who went from a wannabe wise guy to living the high life (in more ways than one) in Goodfellas. There’s Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part 2, who came to America with nothing and built an empire by murdering and negotiating his way to the top.
Mob movies, in fact, very rarely show a less glamorous side of organized crime. We don’t spend much time with the henchmen who do all the dirty work and still wind up living in low-rent apartments. The glossy lifestyle seems to automatically come with the job when you’re a gangster, and that’s probably not exactly how it works out in real life.
2. The epic shootout
Oftentimes, when we think back on our favorite gangster movies, one of the first scenes that come to mind is an epic gun battle. There’s the causeway scene in The Godfather, which made mincemeat out of poor Sonny Corleone. There’s Bonnie & Clyde‘s final sequence, in which the titular heroes are also gunned down on the road. Even earlier films, like The Public Enemy, let their gangsters get off a good shot or two.
Since these scenes are more or less synonymous with the gangster subgenre, directors have gone out of their way to make them as high-quality and unforgettable as possible. The Heat‘s robbery showdown was shot in downtown L.A., and was so well executed that it’s still considered a gold standard today. The Untouchables shootout borrowed heavily from the film Battleship Potemkin, and it’s unforgettable, if only for the fact that Andy Garcia managed to both save a baby and continue to fire his weapon. These films have set the bar pretty high for future gangster moviemakers, even if they are a little bit ridiculous.
1. “One last job, and I’m out.”
Living a life of crime has to be pretty exhausting. So it makes sense that a lot of the characters we see in mob movies seem to be antsy to get out of the game and get on with their lives. Unfortunately, we’ve seen enough well-intentioned mobsters claim they’re retiring to know that it’s never that simple. In films like Heat, Sexy Beast, and Blow, the protagonists are all dead-set on the idea that they’re going to do one last job. Usually, it’s because a friend needs their help, or they have one last debt to square away. Sometimes, they even come out of retirement to settle a score or get another shot at glory – but even then, they swear it’s just a one-time thing.
The problem is that the crime world isn’t going to let them go without a fight. The job goes haywire, someone gets killed, or the Feds show up and our almost-retired mob man ends up knee-deep in some serious trouble. It all goes to show us that when it comes to the gangster lifestyle, you may think you’re out, but it will always pull you back in.
What do you think is the worst gangster movie cliche? Are there others that we’ve forgotten to mention? Let us know in the comments!
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