When I was a kid there was something very cool about being in a gang. Grouping together my friends under one natty heading seemed entirely the right thing to do and our gang had hours of fun playing conkers, marbles, bumper cars, bulldog and kiss chase (thankfully there were some girls in our gang). Unfortunately, some children today see gang memberships as a fast track to exploits that are a lot more stabby and shooty than our innocent pastimes ever were, something which is very, very uncool. Our gang was named after The Warriors from The Warriors (1979)
but even at the tender age of nine we all knew that the violent acts depicted by our onscreen namesakes were never to be imitated. A good number of twenty first century youths don’t know this, or do know and don’t care. It’s a sad state of affairs and undermines the friendship and camaraderie that having a group of Goonies
inspired chums brings. It also raises that age-old argument of the "dangers" of movie violence. The way I see it if someone is mentally unstable enough to commit an unprovoked act of violence anything could be a trigger, from an advert on television to a radio broadcast. So what then; a blanket ban on any medium that could potentially unleash these violent minded individuals? I’m not sure that’s a world I want to live in. But I digress. The movie world has approached the world of gangs from all angles over the last few decades, preaching the virtues of a band of merry men and women, to posting harsh warnings on the dangers of modern gang culture. Here are ten of the best, lumped together in one formidable posse.
- THE WILD ONE (1953)
The motorcycle and the gang member go together hand in hand like knuckle dusters and teeth. Fifty seven years after Marlon Brando cemented his bad-boy, bike riding, leather jacket wearing image, the King of the motorbike gang movie is still Laszlo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953). With Brando as Johnny (why is every bad-boy, anti-hero called Johnny?), the head of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club, and Lee Marvin playing Chino the head of the rival biker gang, the smell of gasoline and testosterone positively wafts from your TV speakers. You may also find yourself getting an uncontrollable urge to grab a bunch of your pals and head out looking for your own brand of stuffy conservatism to rebel against. The Wild One was a cinematic turning point. From 1953 onwards roaming packs of outlaws ditched the horse and the Wild West for the wheeled rocket and tarmac highway. Fancied yourself as a gang member? Best grab yourself some leather garments and some motorised transportation. The inspiration for the movie was an article in Harper’s Magazine called "The Cyclists Raid” which told of the events of a group of bikers that supposedly ran amok in the Californian town of Hollister in1947. Little did these beered up biker boys know they were providing the inspiration for Benedek and Brando to change the course of movie and gang history in one slick cinematic effort.
Tasty Morsel – The bike that Brando rode in the movie was his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T motorcycle.
- A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Clockwork Orange's (1971) original bad boy movie gang can still hold a candle to any gaggle of hard-nut wannabes, even forty years after Stanley Kubrick brought cane swinging naughtiness to cinemas. Most of this lingering trendiness can be attributed to the futurism of Anthony Burgess’ original 1962 novel, a tale of a not too distant dystopian world. And in this grey future we meet Alex DeLarge (the electrifying Malcolm McDowell) and his band of "droogs”, a bowler hat wearing mob whose interests include Beethoven, wanton rape and beating the snot out of unsuspecting strangers. The films reputation goes before it, director Kubrick famously banning his own movie after apparent copycat beatings were reported in the press. Ironically, the stories latter half focuses on the rehabilitation of Alex and the terrifying consequences of his life of criminality. But it isn’t Alex’s remorse that remains with the viewer but rather the other worldly cool of his gang, despite the undisputed nastiness and illegality of their exploits. The film creates a drug like hum that sucks a viewer into its off kilter world. You ache to join Alex for a glass of cow-juice in the Korova Milk Bar and a spot of "the old ultra-violence” to cap off the evening. Taboo yes, and most definitely uncomfortable, there aren’t that many films that leave you with an undeniable need to shake off the rules of society and grab a sack full of doorknobs or a plank of wood with a nail in the end. But Kubrick, Burgess and A Clockwork Orange walked this fine line with frightening panache.
Tasty Morsel – Burgess, in need of a quick buck, originally sold the movie rights to Orange to Mick Jagger for $500. Jagger intended to make the film with the other Rolling Stones as his "droogs”.
- THE WARRIORS (1979)
The Moonrunners, the Turnball AC’s, the Baseball Furies, the Jones Street Boys, the Electric Eliminators, the Savage Huns, the Rogues, the Gramercy Riffs. To date you will not find a single movie that is so tightly packed with gangland cool as Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979). Based on the 1965 Sol Yurick novel of the same name, we follow the lowly Warriors gang across one night in a near future Manhattan as they desperately try to make it back to their home turf of Coney Island. The unlucky crew have been framed for the murder of gangland leader Cyrus who has been assassinated at a meeting of all the New York gangs. Surprisingly, the tale draws much influence from Anabasis, the classic work from Greek soldier and writer Xenophon. But it isn’t the literary links we’re here for, it’s the kick-ass cool of the gang ridden culture located somewhere-in-the-near-future Big Apple. As well as partnering the Warriors for their tense dash through subways and tattered streets, you’re eager to learn more about the gaudy gangs that occupy this near lawless metropolis. There could be a hundred stories spun around this setting and the colourful characters therein; the Warriors escape is just one of them. How were these gangs formed, how many are there, what is their hierarchy? And for all the threat of violence in the movie, the fisticuffs that ensue look no worse than your average episode of The A-Team. For any red-blooded male it all adds up to the greatest Saturday night out you never had. A second night of fun was in the offing as director Tony Scott was planning a remake of the movie. But with the passing of Scott the Warriors burgundy waistcoats remain closeted for now.
Tasty Morsel – Despite the success The Warriors had at the cinema the film had to be pulled from theatres in New York as real life rival gangs were going to see the movie and kicking off in the stalls.
- RED DAWN (1984)
And you thought Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze’s first boogie together was the salsa slide in Dirty Dancing (1987). It was actually the grenade-launcher shuffle in this audacious early-eighties John Milius’ movie. The premise is as balmy as they come even by Milius' standards. The Soviet Union, together with its Central American allies, have planned a full scale invasion of the United States. That’s an actual invasion, complete with Russian troops parachuting onto America soil to kick some damned Yankee ass. How on earth the Ruskies thought they would be able to take over and occupy a country with a land mass of some 3 million square miles and a population of 300 million people is anyone’s guess. This is where our story starts though and our little window on World War III is the small Colorado town of Calumet. We follow a group of high school kids that find themselves surrounded by trigger happy Communists, and retreat to the mountains to mount a teenage angst ridden comeback. Naming themselves after their school footie team, the Wolverines, they go from shit-scared teens to an airtight fighting force over the next few months. Food is harvested, weapons stored and boys become men, all the while shooting large lumps out of the invading Easterners. Despite the ridiculous concept the movie has a tense Cold War era feel, with no happy ending and a healthy penchant for offing its surprisingly adept cast. And what a cast, a young Swayze and Grey, a chipper Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Harry Dean Stanton and the mighty Powers Boothe. A dark unexpected treat. Avoid the woeful 2013 remake.
Tasty Morsel – The idea of a USSR/Cuban invasion from Mexico was based on CIA studies of the time that identified US strategic weaknesses of the time.
- THE FIRM (1988)
There’s something about football that makes it different from any other sport. The simplicity of the game, the beauty of a well played match, the world’s most popular sport? Nope, it’s the only sport on Earth where the fans see kicking the shit out of each other as "part of the game”. It has always baffled me how the sight of twenty two guys kicking a bag of air around equates to beating up another human being, especially when the twenty two men in question frequently fall to the ground for nothing more than a strong passing breeze. Whatever the reason, football gangs make for great cinematic fodder. There has been a horde of football thuggery films of late with the likes of The Football Factory (2004), Green Street (2005) and Cass (2008). But the true champion remains the 1988 classic The Firm (1988). Based on the exploits of the Inner City Firm, an infamous group of West Ham United fans, the central character is Clive "Bexy” Bissel played with typical menace by the ever dependable Gary Oldman. Bexy is a bloke of two halves, a respectable family man during the week, but a proud football hooligan on weekends. Ruling over his fellow thugs with an intimidating attitude Bexy dreams of bringing together the rival firms from teams across the country to battle fans from other countries for the sake of the national team. Unlike the more recent footie violence films, The Firm portrays a realistic and scathing flipside to the "tasty” shenanigans of Saturday afternoons up and down the country. A depressing but impressive insight into our national game.
Tasty Morsel – The film was remade in 2009, with the focus moved to one of younger hooligan wannabes in Bexy’s crew.
- ROMPER STOMPER (1992)
If cinema has taught us anything it’s that the Aussies like nothing better than a frosty beer and a ruck. Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, Russell Crowe, they are all partial to a cold tinny and some fist swinging. Ok, so Crowe’s a New Zealander, but you get the point. One of Crowe’s early breakout performances was in this early nineties gang flick. Controversial at the time and indeed still so now Romper Stomper (1992) follows a group of Neo-Nazi skinheads as they battle with local Vietnamese immigrants in their home city of Melbourne. The films reputation as cinematic knuckle sandwich is not particularly well founded. Aside from a couple of dust ups the film is fairly light on mouth smacking action. What it does achieve is an intriguing look into the inner workings of a white supremacist group. The bitter control of lead skinhead Hondo (Crowe) and the motivations and allegiances of the crew are prodded are poked in a raw way by director Geoffrey Wright. Ultimately, the movie will probably leave you with more questions than answers but it is a fascinating watch and a dark journey into a social organisation very rarely examined by cinema. The films only downside is that it is a girl that finally drives a wedge between the gang members, a somewhat cliché climax for such a powerful tale.
Tasty Morsel – Scarily enough, the film was loosely based on the activities of real life Melbourne skinhead Dane Sweetman who is currently serving a life sentence for murder.
- ONCE WERE WARRIORS (1994)
Word is that New Zealand is a lot like the British Isles use to be in the nineteen thirties and forties; a delightful land of old fashion values and lush countryside, where you can leave your front door open with nary a care. If writer Alan Duff is to be believed nothing could be farther from the truth. His best selling book Once Were Warriors, adapted for the big screen by Lee Tamahori, follows a Maori family and the dark side of their life embroiled in the Maori gangs. Lord of the Rings country this isn’t. The central character is Jake "the Muss” Heke, a dark soul whose life is gradually slipping into depression, violence and booze. When Jake’s sons begin sinking into the local gang culture Jake becomes an even more tortured and violent man. It takes a tragic and brutal crime against his youngest daughter before Jake recovers any of the man he use to be. A gripping and dark drama, the movie centres around a towering performance from native New Zealander Temuera Morrison. His portrayal of Jake is staggering and why the man did not receive an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination I struggle to explain. Capturing the weight of the Maori traditions and embroidering them into the soul of a sympathetic character who, by rights we should hate the sight of, must have been no easy feat. Duff has thus far written two sequels What Becomes of the Broken Hearted (1996) and Jake’s Long Shadow (2002) with the former reaching the big screen in the same year.
Tasty Morsel – Morrison’s next big role was in the Star Wars prequel trilogy as the bounty hunter Jango Fett
- ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996)
If you want to go somewhere that has some real gang issues get yourself down to the City of Angels. LA’s infamous gang culture is sadly part of the fabric of the city. The violence, tragedy, kinship and affinity of the Bloods, Crips, Mexican Mafia et al has also had a large impact on artistic endeavours in the last thirty years. Cinema is no exception, with films such as Colors (1988), Boyz N The Hood (1991), American History X (1998) and Dark Blue (2003) based around Los Angeles’ gang troubles. But the majority of these tend to dwell on the depressing side of gang life, the inevitable downfall of the individuals caught up in the drive by shootings and street-side beatings. In 1996 director Larry Cohen lifted the LA gang culture up, plonked it down in Gary, Indiana and threw in some classic Blaxploitation era stars to create an LA styled "gangsta” flick of a different sort. Instead of leaving you wanting to slash your wrists Original Gangstas (1996) is a fist pumping story of old dogs returning to old stomping grounds to open a much needed can of whoop-ass. And when those old dogs are Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Richard Roundtree you know you’re in for a treat. They must rescue the neighbourhood of their youth from their old gang, the Rebels, who have become a nasty group of modern-day, gun carrying crooks. The addition of future Jackie Brown (1997) stars Robert Forster and Pam Grier makes the film more succulent still, and a right on soundtrack featuring the likes of Ice-T, Luniz and various other hip-hop acts of the time completes the package with a righteous high five.
Tasty Morsel – Fred Williamson and Jim Brown both successfully plied their trade in the rough and tumble world of American Football before turning to acting.
- CITY OF GOD (2002)
By now you may have noticed that the majority of gang movies fall into two distinct categories. On the left standing in nicely trimmed leather garments, adorned with garish gang logos are the fun-punching, cool as ice, I wouldn’t mind being in their gang, movies. On the right looking a whole lot more dishevelled and shifty are the based on real-life, harsh reality films of gangland. Perhaps the most heart wrenching and scarifying of all the flicks in this latter category is this Brazilian made drama Cidade De Deus (2002). Adapted from Bráulio Mantovani’s 1997 novel of the same name, the film is a harsh depiction of the rise of organized crime and gang culture on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro between the 1960’s and the early 1980’s. Perhaps the most shocking part of the movie is the fact that most of the actors were residents of Rio’s shanty towns. How directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund managed to extract such performances from the cast is a minor miracle. Shooting the movie on location in the "favelas” of Rio was also a brave decision, the dangers of the locale adding their own problems and unique circumstances. But for that cinema vérité element what better method is there than going straight to the source. Meirelles and Lund created a spin-off television series called City of Men following the success of the film, though the series had a much more light hearted tone than its gloomy cinematic predecessor.
Tasty Morsel – Not only was City Of God not nominated in the Best Picture Oscar category in 2003, it didn’t even get nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
- GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002)
New York seems to be the setting of choice for quality gang films. Twenty three years after Walter Hill had the Warriors running around the place, Martin Scorsese took a stab at a Big Apple gang based movie. As fun as a Warriors Scorsese remake would have been, the silver haired director took a different approach stepping back into the past. Gangs Of New York (2002) is a sweeping epic set in the 1860’s and the early years of the great city. The Five Points district is the setting, with Irish immigration and conscription for the American Civil War the backdrop. The main player is Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is trying to get close enough to local outlaw, Bill "the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) to take revenge for the murder of his father many years before. The movie culminates in an epic ruck across the Five Points, intermixed with the chaos of the New York Draft Riot of 1863. Day Lewis is the shining star of the film, deftly crafting one of cinema’s great villains and leaving everyone else scrambling to reach his level of acting brilliance. The birth of the Big Apple also makes for a fascinating watch. The movie viewer has seen the cities concrete jungle on screens so many times it is refreshing to see a different take on the town. The grubby nastiness of a tear-up on the cobbles 19th century style is fully realised by Scorsese, as is the swinging allegiances of a community constantly on the verge of tearing itself apart. Lush film-making and grand story telling, and a brilliant final shot which time travels right up to present day.
Tasty Morsel – Scorsese originally planned to make the film in 1978 with Dan Aykroyd in the role of Amsterdam and John Belushi as Bill The Butchter.