The Irishman, or I Heard You Write Blog Posts

By Bob Case Posted Saturday Nov 30, 2019

Filed under: Movies 64 comments

Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, The Irishman, was released on Netflix this past Wednesday. It’s about the life and times of truck driver-turned-mobster Frank Sheeran and his relationships with his family, Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, and various figures in the northeastern underworld. I won’t go into any more detail than that because I don’t want to spoil people who haven’t seen it (yet – there’ll be a spoiler section below, I’ll let you know when it’s imminent). But I have thoughts about the movie.

Link (YouTube)

One thing you may not know about me (since it’s never really come up) is that for most of my adult life I’ve been fascinated by organized crime. I don’t just watch movies about gangsters. I watch documentaries about gangsters, read books about (and even by) gangsters, read books about the cops who chase after the gangsters, and go to websites that report on what the gangsters are up to these days. And not just American mobsters but Latin American gangsters, Hong Kong gangsters, Mumbai gangsters, Russian gangsters, Nigerian gangsters, you name it. There are a thousand different varieties, and I’m interested in all of them.

I wish I could explain why. Overall, I’m about as timid a law-abiding citizen as they come, so, as embarrassing as it is, it’s most likely that I’m just living vicariously through them. That, or I’m attracted to the concept of another, secret power structure that exists alongside the legitimate ones. I’m certainly not the only one. Americans love stories about people who get away with it. And there is something to admire there. Some of the rackets these hoodlums come up with are fascinating. They have tenacity, ingenuity, and a healthy disrespect for authority that has a twisted sort of democratic spirit to it. One of my favorite bits of trivia is that, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, many locals call the drug smugglers “los valientes” or “the brave ones.” I can kind of understand that.

Of course, there’s a darker side to it as well. Gangsters commit not only easily digestible crimes, like smuggling marijuana, but also very unsettling ones, like kidnapping, extortion, and murder. The ones that are harder to live vicariously through. And this movie very much concerns that second category.

This is a bit of a change. Scorsese’s last “gangster movie” was, in a sense, The Wolf of Wall Street, about a firm full of crooked stockbrokers who used pump and dump schemes to defraud their clients of millions. Many critics accused the movie of reveling too much in the excesses of Jordan Belfort and his cronies, and glorifying their debauched lifestyles, their partying, and their enthusiastic drug use. It’s a criticism that I personally think does hold some water – and one that I suspect Scorsese himself took partially to heart.

But I predict that no such accusations will be made about The Irishman. The movie gives you some sense of the material rewards of being a criminal, sure. The characters eat at swanky supper clubs, wear expensive suits and jewelry, and drive nicer cars and live in nicer houses than they would have otherwise. But it also depicts a lonely, paranoid existence where, if you stick around long enough, your own family members will stop talking to you and you’ll eventually be asked to murder a close friend.

Is this an “authentic” mob movie? I wouldn’t know. I never actually joined the mafia (I failed the entrance exam too many times), but my decade-long infatuation with organized crime has, I believe, given me some sense of whether they’re getting it right or not. And so, by the power vested in me by my own self-regard, I formally declare this movie authentic. This will also serve as the official start of the spoiler part of the review, right below this video of Al Pacino and Stephen Graham arguing about traffic.

Link (YouTube)

Concerning authenticity: at this point, I should mention that this movie is very likely based on a pack of lies. Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance is one of the most famous unsolved crimes in American history, and in 2004 a defense attorney named Charles Brandt released a book called “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which featured Frank Sheeren’s confession to not only Hoffa’s murder, but also another famous unsolved mob hit, that of “Crazy” Joe Gallo in 1972.

Those that know about such things say that, while Sheeran was certainly a criminal mixed up in various rackets, both union and otherwise, there’s no evidence that he ever killed anyone, much less that he committed the many murders depicted in the movie. So in that sense, it’s unrealistic. But this is a grey area in which I’m willing to accept the excuse of artistic license. If Frank Sheeran himself didn’t kill Jimmy Hoffa, most likely someone like him did.

Who? Take your pick. This is a world filled with people who do unspeakable things to each other, and in this case “unspeakable” is a word used literally. In one scene, Robert DeNiro’s Sheeran tries to warn Al Pacino’s Hoffa about the dangers of continuing to run for President of the Teamsters’ Union, and he says pretty much every variation of “they’re going to kill you” he can without actually saying the words. “It is what it is,” he says several times, confusingly. Then, later, “it’s not a threat. It’s the bottom line.” Pacino, who plays Hoffa with an arresting combination of courage and pigheaded obtuseness, gets the message – but he doesn’t really get the message. You see? Now I’m talking like they do. It’s contagious. Why are people who are willing to kill each other unwilling to speak about it in plain language? I think we know why, even if we can’t quite put it into words. We know it in our souls. These are shameful things these people are doing, better left unspoken of.

The movie’s climactic sequence, in which Jimmy Hoffa’s murder is arranged in excruciatingly detailed increments, is difficult to watch. In fact, “climactic” isn’t the right word, as it traffics more in awkward, growing dread than it does in excitement. It almost has the quality of a The Office-style cringe comedy, except instead of Jim playing an elaborate prank on Dwight, it features Sheeran luring his longtime friend Hoffa into an abandoned house so he can shoot him in the head with no witnesses.

And then there’s the denouement. Jimmy Hoffa’s body is disposed of by a pair of assistant hoodlums given the unglamorous but necessary task of cremating the body and disposing of the murder weapon. At this point, there’s still roughly an hour of runtime left, and we get to see the uncomfortable aftermath. Frank Sheeran’s health declines, and he’s put into a nursing home. One of his daughters, disgusted by his actions, refuses to even speak to him anymore, and another struggles to explain to him why. “You did all these terrible things,” she says, to a father who is unable to remember what remorse feels like. One by one, every major character in the movie dies, and the glory days of La Cosa Nostra – that august institution that gave us Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lanksy, and a baker’s dozen of other famous criminals – fade into irrelevance. Near as I can tell, John Gotti was the last mobster the general public cared about, and his movie bombed at the box office.

I can’t help but remember the opening sequence of Scorsese’s first mob movie, Goodfellas, which I’ll link below.

Link (YouTube)

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” says Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. I think I can say, that of all the movies I’ve ever seen, this is the one that made me the most glad that I’m not.


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64 thoughts on “The Irishman, or I Heard You Write Blog Posts

  1. baud says:

    “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which featured Frank Sheeren’s confession

    Typo to Sheeran here.

  2. BlueHorus says:

    Why are people who are willing to kill other unwilling to speak about it in plain language? I think we know why, even if we can’t quite put it into words. We know it in our souls. These are shameful things these people are doing, better left unspoken of.

    Well, there’s also the point that if you say it out loud – and straightforward – it’s undeniable. Firstly in a court of law, but also just when talking amongst other gangsters, the ‘I didn’t say that / That’s not what I meant’ bullshit defence is very useful.
    Not least because people can be very prone to ‘killing the messenger’.

    I never actually joined the mafia (I failed the entrance exam too many times)

    It’s the accent part of the exam, right? I had that problem.
    Yah just don’t speak right, kid. Fahgettaboudit.

    1. Steve C says:

      I always thought it was to ensure something obviously incriminating never was recorded nor overheard.

      1. Leonardo Herrera says:

        Part of it is that. But an even bigger thing is, you just don’t need to talk; a wise guy don’t need many words to know what has to be done. Mobster culture values action and discretion; you need to be reliable and walk the walk. That’s why the guys who are too loud and obnoxious tend to die early in the movies :-)

        Mario Puzo’s books play a lot with this twisted sense of mobster’s moral principles. There is this constant premise of reliability and discretion being a good trait. You can have as many girls by the side and bastard sons by the bucket, but your career could get truncated early if you try to divorce. Homosexuality is just plain taboo. And the list goes on and on in a really complex code that somebody will inevitably step on sometimes, giving us many plot points and really fun reads.

  3. Sometimes I think the American love of gangsters is like the European love of monarchy/aristocracy. They have the same fundamental roots, the same luxurious lifestyle sustained by hideous violence that can rebound and destroy you at any moment.

    The interesting difference, though, is that with the gangsters the tawdry and vile nature of it is shown more openly.

    1. sheer_falacy says:

      To be fair the love of monarchy/aristocracy is hardly unique to Europe. You can find tons of books and movies and whatever made in the USA where you have a destined heir to the throne who is the one true king, and whoever usurped power from the royal family is the real monster. Or you could look at almost every Fire Emblem.

      But yes, they tend to ignore the realities of hereditary dictatorship. Gangster stories do that a lot less.

      1. Bloodsquirrel says:

        Funny story: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Author’s Court was written specifically as a deconstruction of the then-popular romanticism of monarchy and the nobility. It’s a lot more scathing than it’s take-offs generally tend to be.

        1. I haven’t read that since high school. I should pick up some more Mark Twain.

    2. tmtvl says:

      Yeah sure, every day the queen sends tde beefeaters out to take a hammer to a junkie’s kneecaps until he coughs up another few quid to keep his addiction going.

      Monarchies have a better rep than gangsters because they’ve done their fair share of good. Those that misused their power a bit too much generally ended up on the wrong side of a sharp piece of metal.

      1. Bloodsquirrel says:

        Yeah sure, every day the queen sends tde beefeaters out to take a hammer to a junkie’s kneecaps until he coughs up another few quid to keep his addiction going.

        Yes, actually, monarchs did tend to do that, except at a far, far greater scale. Often times they’d even get an army together and go do it to their neighbors. And sometimes they’d just kill all of the men and sell the women and children into slavery. Or they might just kill you because you were worshiping God the wrong way.

        And that’s not even getting into the really bad stuff they did. The point is that gangsters really can’t compete with monarchs when it comes to spreading mass suffering, and they generally got away with it more often than not (or they were killed by an even more brutal monarch, along with a bunch of their people). Even the various monarchs who were responsible for the Napoleonic wars got to keep their heads.

        1. Duoae says:

          Just going to ask this:

          Yes, actually, monarchs did tend to do that, except at a far, far greater scale. Often times they’d even get an army together and go do it to their neighbors. And sometimes they’d just kill all of the men and sell the women and children into slavery. Or they might just kill you because you were worshiping God the wrong way.

          How is this different from any established current and/or former governing system? I mean, democracies and republics fight unjust wars or allow arms deals to go through to despotic rulers…

          I don’t get the argument running through this thread.

          Seems to me that the old adage “power corrupts” applies to every instance, including down to organised crime.

          1. BlueHorus says:

            You know what? This post says more-or-less what I wanted to, So I’m going to +1.
            Yes, there are similarities between organised crime and monarchy, but they are similarities fundamental to anywhere you have humans in power, where there will inevitably be corruption.
            I was tempted at first to to make a joke like ‘the best kind of organised crime is the one where the people commiting it are poweful enough…then it’s just known as ‘organisation’, or [INSERT PUNCHLINE HERE*].

            *Punchlines include: government, monarchy, powerful corporations, the police, that political party you don’t like, [famous politician]’s government, etc, etc, etc.

            Anyway, probably too close to Politics – maybe even crossing the line as is, so I’ll stop.

            1. Joshua says:

              Eh, think most of the opposition to politics comes from pointless, worn out arguments that get people riled up, repeat the same arguments ad nauseum like people shouting “Tastes Great/Less Filling” at each other, and generally go nowhere.

              Unless you think an argument is going to be started by people who want to argue that people in politics/positions of power NEVER get corrupted, God damnit?

          2. Bloodsquirrel says:

            How is this different from any established current and/or former governing system? I mean, democracies and republics fight unjust wars or allow arms deals to go through to despotic rulers…

            You say this as if pointing out how bad monarchs were somehow means I must be claiming that democracies are free from sin. Democracies are certainly better, as in they commit far fewer atrocities, but the worship of democracy as some kind of sacrosanct ideal is horribly misguided, and if tmtvl’s comment had been about the US government vs. organized crime I’d have been willing to make the same fundamental comparison. There’s a good reason why I don’t support the government, no matter what form it takes, having any more power than is absolutely necessary.

            1. Duoae says:

              Sorry, Bloodthirsty squirrel – that’s my fault as I was unclear.

              I replied to your quotable bit as I thought your example wasn’t necessarily reflective of many monarchies*. There’s a social back-and-forth we never had during those times but, overall… I don’t see much difference between power attained through money that the huge corporations and oligarchs have over the western style democracies and their equivalents in the styles of ruling in Russia and China and monarchies. Most monarchs that I’m familiar with were not the source of power you described above. Some were figureheads, others had vassals that effectively ruled their own parts of the country (and sometimes even overthrew the ruler, as you noted). The actual monarchs (such as Henry the VIII) that sound similar to what you described functioned less violently than recent dictators did from my understanding of those different times and events (though I can’t claim to be anywhere near being expert) and I’m not sure how common those sorts of rulers really are because they tend to be universally unliked and eventually overthrown.

              But then I switched my thoughts in my head to the “thread” in that “people” love to look up to and try and attain or emulate and/or attach themselves to “people perceived to have power”. Being european myself, I don’t see this love of monarchies but I see the love of the paegentry and show of power. But then that extends to things like gangsters and political figures and (believed to be) successful business people as well as spiritual figures and representatives… doctors, philosophers, artists, etc. like BlueHorus and you then say in your respective replies, above.

              “Power attracts”.

              For me, there’s as many people who like gangsters and monarchies and charismatic business or religious leaders as much as any and each other.

              *Though my knowledge is specifically rooted in English/Scottish and French history, so my dataset might be very narrow.

              1. Bloodsquirrel says:

                The problem I see is that you’re mixing things up on several levels:

                1) You’re making a lot of comparative statements that really don’t prove much. Being less oppressive and violent than Joseph Stalin or Kim-Jong Il is not a great standard to hold somebody to (if you can even consider the Kims as dictators, rather than hereditary monarchs at this point).

                2) You’re assuming that I’m arguing for some kind of fundamental difference between the abuse of state power in a democracy and the abuse of state power in a monarchy, when in fact the only claim I’ve made is that there is generally a difference in scale. You can’t be tortured to death for insulting the President/Prime Minister in a western democracy. A corporation engaging in cronyism can’t throw you in jail for not buying their products like a government can. Any use of government power is, ultimately, based on either violence or the threat of it, but there are still differences of scale, brazenness, and brutality between different kinds of states.

                3) You are, by your own admission, drawing from a pool of monarchies that wields little actual power. Even Henry the VII was a post-Magna Carta monarch. By comparison, I would suggest looking at the exploits of Leopold II of Belgium, Genghis Khan, Vlad Tepes, Saladin, or pretty much any of the Assyrian kings/emperors.

                My position is pretty simple: State power rests upon the use and threat of use of violence. Even a modern western democracy uses said violence or threat of it on a scale that easily eclipses any criminal organization, and the more autocratic the state, the worse the use of violence becomes. The original statement- that monarchs didn’t use violence to get money from people- is just plain wrong. It would have been wrong if applied to any kind of government, but in this case it happened to be applied to monarchies. That doesn’t make them the best or the worst, or establish any fundamental difference between a monarch throwing you in jail for not paying your taxes and a democracy doing so.

                (As a side note, the idea that most monarchs who behaved badly were overthrown isn’t historically accurate. It’s really only England that developed a strong tradition of overthrowing or forcing concessions from its kings- most monarchs who were deposed were deposed by either an outside power or by a sibling, general, or other internal rival who was no less oppressive or brutal. It wasn’t until after the American revolution that you started to see monarchs being felled by popular movements, and when it happened it was usually the end of the entire monarchy.)

                1. LCF says:

                  “Leopold II of Belgium”
                  If anyone needed a hand in understanding the difference between Democracy and Monarchy, they’d only need asking old Leopold. He has whole baskets of them.

          3. The difference is that the methodology that leads to the unjust stuff is BUILT IN to the entire concept of monarchy and aristocracy–the notion that the monarch and nobles are a “special kind” of human being who has the RIGHT to extract wealth with violence from their own populace, the RIGHT to go to war at whim, the RIGHT to murder, plunder, torture, maim, and destroy *whenever they want to* because they are the literal representatives of God on earth who own EVERYTHING and EVERYONE.

            A “system” where this is enshrined in principle (and it’s not quite the same as a constitutional monarchy, I’m talking old school divine right monarchy and aristocracy) is fundamentally different from one where the principle that the government has a specific, delimited purpose, and cannot morally go outside the bounds of that purpose but that sometimes screws up (occasionally badly) because the people who execute those principles are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Saying “how is that different” is like saying that there is NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER between a serial killer who hasn’t yet murdered literally everyone (but wants to and could) and a guy who holds that murder is absolutely wrong but who panics and shoots someone because it was dark and he thought the person was about to pull a weapon on him.

            It doesn’t matter if your absolute monarch is a nice person or not as long as they adhere to the principle of absolute monarchy. LIkewise, in a free country it doesn’t (ultimately) matter if there are a few assholes who do damage (although one should feel obligated to fix as much as possible, certainly), as long as the principle of properly limited and lawful government is being upheld.

            One of the greatest evils in the world is the people who go around saying that “there’s no difference” because their standard for human behavior is magical omniscience and magical perfection, not any reference to principle, because they disarm those who struggle for good and make it so that those people cannot fight the real evil on moral grounds, because “it’s all the same”.

      2. Agammamon says:

        No, they don’t do that. Because the monarch (and government’s everywhere) have broken enough kneecaps in the past that we’re all pretty certain that if we don’t cough up that quid they *will* be coming round with the hammers.

        Governments are useful – but let’s not pretend that, at their roots, they’re not supported by a willingness to do violence to enforce their will.

    3. kincajou says:

      Look, let’s not generalise here.
      There are 7 monarchies remaining in the EU (out of the 27 member sates). A lot of european countries have eliminated their monarchies either through violent or non violent means and established republics.

      A particular case is france where monarchies are seen as obsolete and a hindrance to democratic rule. For a point of comparison the population of france represents 13 % of the EU population.

      Honestly, the big “european love for monarchy and aristocracy” isn’t actually a thing. It may be for the UK (and even then, that’s only the veneer on some very complex and nuanced social/cultural ideals) but not for europe as a whole.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Fun fact: I’ve lived in the UK for over 20 years, and in that time, I learned…the names of the most prominent members of the royal family: basically the Queen & the next 2-3 in line to succeed. That’s it. They were just people in fancy / silly clothes that would turn up on the news periodically.

        But THEN, I went and worked at a the international office of one of the major US TV networks…and man oh man, did those guy keep track of the royals. I learend more about ‘my’ royal family working for Americans than I ever did just living in the UK.

        And yeah, I doubt French people care much about royalty, given their famous revolution.

        1. Bubble181 says:

          Hailing from one of those remaining monarchies here, and, yeah, we don’t really care. I mean, I’m personally a republican (not the American kind, the anti-monarchist-pro-presidential-rule-type), but whatever.
          The Royal Family is a type of celebrity that’s useful for the Christmas TV and comedy shows, and maybe on occasion to lead a trade mission.
          Our crown princess recently turned 18. I saw… one article about her dress, and one about “is it still useful to even have this institution”. Oh, and I think it was featured as the “lighthearted” story at the end of the news, you know, after the sports and weather and stuff.
          Obviously there are royalty watchers – just like there are plane spotters, petanque enthusiasts, or whatever. It’s a small minority hobby.

          1. kincajou says:

            Your last sentence made me giggle.. “Oh you’re into philately? Huh… that’s a bit mainstream, isn’t it? Try following european monarchies if you really want to stand out!”

            1. Bubble181 says:

              Maybe not true for the British Royal House, but I do honestly think there are more people interested in Belgian stamps than in Belgian Royalty ;-)

          2. I’m not talking about celebrity-watching sort of care. I’m talking about the fact that the title *even still exists* care. It’s not about how people feel, it’s about what they do, and officially much of Europe still clings to the trappings of monarchy even though the substance is pretty much nonexistent.

            It’s certainly true that the cult of celebrity in the U.S. is big and getting bigger, though, and sadly the U.S. president is *effectively* more a “king” in many respects these days than any European monarch.

      2. baud says:

        Regarding France, the first parliament of the third Republic, elected just after the defeat in the war with Prussia, had a monarchist majority. The monarchy nearly got restored, but didn’t, because the monarchists couldn’t agree on who should be king.

    4. Zaxares says:

      Yeah, I think you’ve nailed it. It’s the same root desire of wish fulfillment that a lot of people use entertainment and pop culture to indulge in. They LIKE the idea of being rich/powerful/virtually untouchable, but the thing about living vicariously via entertainment is that in the back of their mind, they’ll always think “Well, I wouldn’t do THAT, of course. I’d be much better, less ruthless, more charitable. I wouldn’t abuse my power or become a tyrant.” and it never occurs to them that, of course, they almost certainly will wind up like that if they were put in their shoes.

      There’s a lovely quote I read once whose author I can’t remember that goes “People always think that, if they were get to get into power, they’d behave very differently to the ones in power now. The ugly truth is that, in order to get and keep power, they’d have to behave very much like the people they despise.”

      1. Of course they’d wind up like that–it’s built into the system, because once you HAVE the power, you have to KEEP the power from everyone ELSE who wants it, and the only way they can get it is to kill YOU.

        So you HAVE to kill them back. What are you going to do, slap them and hope they learn their lesson? It doesn’t work like that. The only way you can avoid this is if magically nobody else wants the throne, which is a joke. If the power is there, there are an unlimited number of competitors for it.

    5. Syal says:

      I don’t think you can replace a gangster with a monarch. There’s an element of brazenness and fearlessness in a gangster movie that’s lacking in a royalty movie. In a monarchy, the entire system is designed to prop up the king; in a gangster movie, the entire system is supposedly there to prevent the gangster’s existence. A gangster is perpetually taking on The Man, while a monarch is The Man.

      1. Duoae says:

        Well, it depends on the realisation of the monarchy in the film. If it was realistic, most medieval monarchies were not like a dictatorship and were only effective with the support of the land-owner elite (who actually drew up armies and taxes). So there’s a lot of politicking there which you can parallel within gangster-like organisations (to a point). You could represent “the man” with “The catholic church”. I did try and play Europa Universalis III but the game scared me enough that I never felt like I had any idea what I was doing… but the interplay between land-owners (vassals of the monarchs), monarchs, other monarchs and nations and “The Church” was quite complex in reality as far as I understood it.

        I guess you only have to look at the popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire and Vikings to see how much people could like that sort of thing.

  4. Topher Corbett says:

    I understand the fascination with organized crime and the appeal of gangster movies, but I hate them. I hate New York and its stupid accent. Although I’m sure they’re great, really well made films, I’ve never wanted to watch Scorsese’s crime movies.

    Admittedly I like comic book movies a lot, but the biggest part of what bothered me about Scorsese’s recent rants about them is his hypocrisy. He grew up with genre movies like musicals and westerns, a lot of which were not very good, and his New Hollywood compatriots Lucas and Speilburg basically created the modern blockbuster off of pulpy science fiction serials and middlebrow genre stories. (Speilburg had the correct take, that comic book movies are just the new westerns.) Moreover, Scorsese’s movies are also genre movies. Crime is a genre. Gangster movies are a genre. They have just as many tropes, conventions, cliches and assumptions as any other genre.

    His idea of “real cinema” or “reality” is degeneracy and cynicism because that’s how he’s lived his life. Failed priest, failed Catholic, five failed marriages, drugs and hookers. He hates heroism and escapism because he thinks they’re unrealistic, while he’s been trapped in his own fantasy that pleasure seeking and violence are all there is to the world.

    1. Bloodsquirrel says:

      I love a good gangster movie, but I’ve always been a much bigger fan of the “horrible downfall” part than the “glorious lifestyle” part. I have zero impulse to romanticize violent criminals, so watching them living it large just makes the part where Joe Pesci gets brutally murdered again all the more cathartic.

      1. Joshua says:

        It just seems natural that all of them will end up dying violently, most likely after destroying all they cherished in life. I’m just not that attracted to this kind of story either, because it’s ending seems inevitable.

        Other genre movies (superheroes, sci-fi, westerns), all have a variety of plots and themes, but it seems like >90% of gangster movies are all about “Person joins organized crime to live life of luxury, ends up ruining their own life and probably the lives of those closest to them as well”.

        1. Hector says:

          I would say that’s part of its appeal. Dramas of any sort that feature bold, powerful protagonists avoiding the consequences of their actions usually feature a “fall” at some point. It goes straight back to the Greeks.

          1. Richard says:

            And the Greeks got that from earlier myths.

            Don’t even mention what happened to Uranus… Seriously, don’t go there.

            1. This discussion reminds me of not long ago when people were discussing the Princess Bride Remake (barf). Yeah, that’s kind of a non-sequitor, but the reason is that I said they COULD do a Princess Bride SEQUEL about Inigo Montoya becoming the Dread Pirate Roberts, and I thought that the most interesting plot to do for that would be one where Inigo really just wants to live his life and enjoy himself and have fun and adventures, but his CREW see him as a murderous thug whose goal should be to acquire loot for them and the authorities, of course, want his head on a plate. So he’d be thrown into this huge conflict where that’s not what he really wants for himself at all.

              So, I think you could do an interesting “gangster” style of plot using that sort of vehicle, where the criminal protagonist’s goal is less to get away with *the crime* and more just to *get away*. B

              Conversely, I’ve seen quite a few recent movies where they try to do a crime where the criminal protagonist actually DOES get away with it (because corporations bad so stealing good!), and they’ve been universally stupid and boring. I mean, how does it make any sense to do a plot where you start off “oh, corporation stole from me, stealing bad! So I’ll steal from someone else, stealing now good!” It’s got a contradiction built right into it, so of course it’s impossible to actually make a good story out of it. Robin Hood DOES work as a story, but even he gets it in the end, and there’s a limit to how long you can sell the “stealing back from The Man” before it becomes obvious that there is no real “altruistic” purpose here and they’re doing more harm than good.

              ADDITIONAL BONUS DIGRESSION: there was an interesting side detail about this overall trope in Dragon Age: Inquisition, with Sera as one of the “Friends of Red Jenny”, who are basically a society of “Robin Hood” types that assist each other. However, the more you see of her “Friends”, the more it becomes clear that they’re not ENTIRELY altruistic–or even altruistic AT ALL, and that the relationship is much more complex than “friends good, nobles bad”.

              The interesting bit comes if you have Solas and Sera in the party at the same time because Solas begins berating Sera about being an ineffective *revolutionary*, which is what he assumes that she wants. This is appropriate, because that is what any SERIOUS Robin Hood type would eventually have to become if they don’t want to just be another jackal among jackals, but this is NOT what Sera is. Sera is actually *a supporter of the current system*. For all her apparent “counter-cultural” trappings and “anti-establishment” appearance, she is an establishment woman through-and-through, and this comes out with her respect for the Chantry and their teachings (which, in typical Sera fashion, she sees as *useful mythology*, not as “really real”, so she really dislikes it when it starts to seem like the Chantry teachings are HISTORY instead of MYTHOLOGY).

              This is an absolutely FASCINATING take on this kind of character and REALLY rare (although I doubt it’s unique). The Friends of Red Jenny aren’t out to destroy the system, what they are out to do is to MAINTAIN that system by acting as a sort of release valve that punishes bad actors and leads to a “kinder, gentler” system that loses much of the impetus for REAL revolution. Your oppressed masses aren’t going to do a wholesale revolt when they can count on getting a little sideways redress. People can endure *a lot* if it means they can avoid a full on kill-or-be-killed total war.

              Solas fails to grasp this concept, so he really dislikes Sera (and the feeling is mutual).

              1. shoeboxjeddy says:

                You make a good point about Robin Hood types. The happy ending of “stealing from the evil tax collectors to pay back the people who can’t make ends meet” is clearly “alter the system in such a way that unjust taxes are no longer collected” not “just… keep on stealing forever.”

      2. Biggus Rickus says:

        That’s why I like The Godfather I and II so much. Michael’s transformation is tragic, even while it’s understandable and in some ways heroic. I do think it venerates Vito too much, though.

      3. shoeboxjeddy says:

        Gangster movies are an interesting story engine because one of three endings seem inevitable.
        1) The protagonist gangster strives for TOO much, and is slapped down by his allies, his rivals, or the law.
        2) The protagonist gangster settles with what he has, which infuriates a different gangster who is going through the character arc described in point 1 above. Their conflict leads to the same ending as 1.
        3) The protagonist gangster’s equilbrium is hurting other people and their suffering boils over to punish them at last.

        Now if you want to be cynical, you can subvert 1, 2, or 3 with “and then he got away with it anyway because life isn’t fair”, but the story is still almost certainly going to take one of these 3 roads.

        Looking at famous examples, I would say
        -The Godfather is a classic #2 example, as is The Godfather Part II. Part III is a #3 example.
        -The Wolf of Wall Street and Wall Street are both #1 type movies.
        -Casino is a #1.
        -American Gangster is a #3 film.
        -Goodfellas is a #2 type.

    2. Geebs says:

      If you’d watched Scorcese’s gangster movies, you’d know that they are absolutely not about glorifying the gangster lifestyle.

      Anyway, if anybody living has earned the right to say what is or isn’t a “proper movie”, I’d say Scorcese qualifies; most of his detractors definitely don’t.

      1. shoeboxjeddy says:

        It’s still an appeal to authority, even if Scorsese is very good at making films. The argument for allowing him to categorize is flimsy to laughable.

    3. SidheKnight says:

      “Crime is a genre. Gangster movies are a genre.”

      Aren’t all movies part of a genre?
      Why are some movies called “genre movies “? What would a non-genre movie be like?

      Perhaps I’m not understanding correctly, English is not my first language.

      1. If you make up enough genres, yeah, anything can be a “genre” film (or novel). Genre gives specifics about setting or plot, so you have genres like “mystery” “crime”, “science fiction” or “romance” or “war” or “superheroes”, etc.

        There are a fair number of movies that really don’t fall neatly into one category or another and are simply called “drama” (or, if they’re humorous, “comedy”). What genre would a movie like Chef go in? It’s light-hearted but it’s not really a comedy.

        It is somewhat telling that Hollywood seems incapable of coming up with a story that ISN’T genre these days, like life doesn’t contain anything worth dramatizing.

  5. Sleeping Dragon says:

    From our neck of the woods while I prefer my games escapist rather than set in a realistic setting some time ago I was convinced to play Sleeping Dogs (which I got from Humble Monthly I believe) and I really liked it. The game does a pretty good job of making many of the law-breaking characters sympathetic and generally fun to be around while also doing things of various degrees of unpleasantness. Admittedly by the end it cheats its way out of the whole “conflict of loyalties” angle but until that point I was really into the story to the extent I absolutely did not expect.

    1. Hector says:

      With Sleeping Dogs, the ultimate lack of immediate conflict was very deliberate. The point wasn’t that the two worlds directly conflicted but that, worryingly, they *didn’t*.

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Oh it’s not that. It’s that just as the conflict starts ramping up the game resolves it (kinda?) without actually putting the character against the wall and forcing them to pick sides (and I’m talking about the character, not the player, I’m not asking for some kind of choice based ending). I don’t want to get too much into spoilers. Mind you I still think the game is great and has some great writing especially far as characters are concerned, I just feel the writers cheated their way a little bit near the end to make the player feel better.

        On an unrelated the game seems to be selling dirt cheap for some reason so if I heartily recommend it.

        1. shoeboxjeddy says:

          Sleeping Dogs is dirt cheap because it’s a 360/Ps3 generation game that was uprezzed to Xb1/Ps4 standards. Similar games from that era are also cheap by now.

  6. @Shamus
    Ever done a analysis of the game Mafia II ?
    Maybe you could do a let’s play of it? (solo or with someone else playing it with you and them commenting).

    Then there is the Godfather games, Godfather I and Godfather II. Myself I liked “II” the most. But Godfather I is interesting in that it has the last performance recorded of Marlon Brando (revising the role of The Godfather from the actor’s sickbed in the hospital so the audio quality is not the best, I think there was some reverb issues too).

    Getting Godfather I to run may be pain (is really old tech) and I seem to recall it crashing a lot.

    In Godfather I you start life out as a street kid, then spoilery stuff happens, then as a young adult you start to climb the mafia tree to the very top, and the story follows the movie “The Godfather” so you’ll interact with all the known characters. I think the way the woven the player character into there story is really nicely done (you play as a new, game only character).
    In Godfather II you continue playing the same character (I forget if you actually can import the old save or not for the character designer), your progress from the first game is sort of “reset” and you have to change locations due to the events in the movie The Godfather II, the story follows the film to a certain extent and you weave in and out of it. The second game feels more like it’s own thing. And again you climb the ranks but in a slightly different way and without spoiling anything I can say you climb higher in the ranks than in the first game.

    The second game has a few mechanics that feels nice (you can “level up” henchmen that you can send out to do stuff). It’s clear the devs where trying o compete with the Mafia and Mafia II games.

    The Godfather and Mafia games where competing in the same way as the first Driver and 3D GTA games where. While playing the Godfather games is awesome in that you recognise and get to play alongside with known characters from the movies and visit locations and take part in events from them, I think the first two Mafia games had better game mechanics, and as for story telling i think Mafia II is the best of all four individual games.

    Incidentally Mafia and Mafia II was made by the same devs that made medieval Kingdom Come Deliverance. I don’t consider Mafia III part of the same series as despite having a character from the second game

    It’s a shame the Godfather III game was never made as I think the game devs could have taken the game franchise even further, as they could have follow The Godfather III movie through maybe the first half of the story of the game, then spun off for the latter half for a truly grand ending of the game trilogy.
    The endings of the Godfather games (I can’t say anything due to spoilers) but they truly gives you a sense of acomplishment and power in a way those that play games for he power fantasy would like.

    The first two Mafia games though feels more grounded, the story (without spoiling too much) ends on a darker note, while you do have the power fantasy the journey doesn’t end there and gets a tad bittersweet in a way. There is also a nice follow up of a plot thread from Mafia in Mafia II that you get to play as part of the main story which was a nice touch.

    It’s a shame that Mafia III was made by a different devs and turned out the way it did. On it’s own Mafia III isn’t a bad game, but I think it could have been a fully standalone game rather than ride on the name and call itself a second sequel in a trilogy. The story in Mafia II was not truly over and (without spoiling too much) I think they could have gone in a direction in a sequel similar to how Godfather II did.

    In KCD the devs take a character that has a nice life, then tear it all away and the player has to get the character to rebuild their life, get revenge and if you add the DLC’s for KCD become basically a lord of your own castle and the lands around it by the end.
    They could have done the same in a proper sequel to Mafia II, either by continuing with the character from Mafia II (as the ending was “open” for a sequel), or by making a new character (and weaving in the end of Mafia II and carry the other character over as maybe some kind of mentor/guide? The loss of which might spur the drive to climb the ranks in a Mafia III get revenge etc.)

    Anyway, it’s a shame that these four games are the best Mafia/Gangster games. And While GTA kinda did the climbing the ranks thing in GTA: Vice City, and GTA. San Andreas that’s basically it, the other GTA game does not do that (GTA IV and GTA V).
    So there’s been a Mafia game drought IMO since those four games.

    Technically a Godfather III game could be made but this should probably be prefixed by heavy remasters/remakes of Godfather I and II first.
    In the Mafia franchise they kinda messed up with Mafia III though I guess you could call a sequel Mafia IV and continue where Mafia II left off, sort of ignoring Mafia III or possible taking a certain character from Mafia III (not the player character, but a certain Italian guy) and using that one as a guide/mentor for a new player character in Mafia IV.

    (warning, there’ll be spoilers below in these urls)

    1. I forgot to add the links to GOG for the games, sadly only the Mafia games are on, but they are on a discount right now.

    2. Welp, so much for my memory. a little errata here:
      *You do not play the same character in the two Godfather games.

      Also for those that can get/run the game… The last performance of Brando (mild spoilers)
      The audio quality is worse than I recall. Brando had a oxygen mask/machine apparently.

    3. Lino says:

      Just a heads-up, this article was written by Bob Case. I don’t think Shamus is a huge fan of gangster-type stuff.

      1. Bloodsquirrel says:

        Well, there was that time when he was big into Narcos…

      2. Steve C says:

        Good note. I wouldn’t have noticed that otherwise. I assumed it was written by Shamus. Because Shamus has said previously he is a fan of gangster-type stuff.

      3. Oh right, I did not notice the small “Bob Case” text up there (sorry Bob).

        But still, I think a series could be done looking at these (and other gangster/mafia games. (with Shamus and Bob commenting over video of gameplay maybe?)

        1. Lino says:

          The telltale for me was the background colour of the post – Shamus’s is light gray, while Bob’s is light blue. However, if I were Shamus, I’d strongly consider changing Bob’s background colour, because I too was confused while reading the first paragraph.
          I’ve never had that problem with Paul’s posts, since the yellow of their background is very different from Shamus’s.

          1. I have the settings on my monitor such that I can’t readily tell the difference between those two, because I have the contrast and brightness way up for gaming purposes. Yes, I could change it when I’m web surfing, but I don’t, because I’m lazy.

  7. kincajou says:

    Hey Bob, thanks for the article. Considering your stated interest in organised crime have you read any of the books by “roberto Saviano” ? (i cannot vouch for any of the films)

    Saviano gives an engaging, harrowing and terrifying read of the Mafia scene in italy and on a face that i have rarely ever seen depicted in US media. In saviano’s books nothing is glorious.

    From a cursory look i can see that “Gomorrah” and “The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples: A Novel” have been translated to english. The latter is particularly good at putting things into context, the fact that there are children going round the streets of naples shooting each other (and their families), idolising pablo escobar (because, like us they also watch netflix and they are teenagers, like all teenagers consuming media and making it part of their lives), having their teeth pulled out because they are over their heads (everyone in that environment always is).

    Personally i was struck by the families of these people, what do you do when you see your children are drug lords? How do you escape the institutionalised violence? Can you protect your loved ones? How do you convince your teenage son that it’s better to become a deliveroo driver in a different city, far away from his friends, when he can earn a year’s delivery boy’s wages in a single night selling drugs? How do you explain to an adolescent that they are not immortal?

    Honestly, before his books i found organised crime shows and films appealing… now, with context, and a personal realisation that it is all true, happening not so far away from me, … not so much.

  8. Col says:

    Well I’ll be, I thought the title was a reference to Mudkips.

  9. Kylroy says:

    “…I should mention that this movie is very likely based on a pack of lies.”

    I’ve heard Frank Sheeran (as portrayed in his book) described as the Forrest Gump of organized crime. So he’s an excellent way to tell a story about many of the big players and events, even if he (well, this version of him, anyway) is ultimately fictitious.

  10. Andy says:


    I know a guy named Danny Greene that grew up in the 70s, in Cleveland. Every time he’d walk in to a bar or whatever, his friends would yell “HEY LOOK, IT’S DANNY GREENE!”

    Danny Greene, of course, being the mobster involved in a bombing war with a rival crime family, who was the target of quite a lot of assassination attempts….

    Gee, thanks, “friends.”

    1. kincajou says:

      what’s the saying? “with friends like that….”

  11. Oddly, there is a “gangster” show that I really like, and that’s Sneaky Pete (Amazon Original). It has AMAZING suspense and is super-complex and convoluted and the resolutions are really awesome.

    It also doesn’t glorify crime, in fact, it kind of does the opposite by showing that although the protagonist is a non-violent criminal, his behavior keeps making him (and the people he cares about) targets for real, hardcore, terrifying cutthroats. His victory consists of defeating the cutthroats and escaping ALIVE, but he doesn’t get to walk off with a big pile of wealth, either.

    If novels are more your thing, try the Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch, starting with The Lies of Locke Lamora.

  12. Simplex says:

    “But it also depicts a lonely, paranoid existence where, if you stick around long enough, your own family members will stop talking to you and you’ll eventually be asked to murder a close friend.”

    I liked those short pauses when a new character was introduced and subtitles detailed how and when he dies, like: “Shot 7 times in the head outside his house in 1980”.

  13. MadTinkerer says:

    I never actually joined the mafia (I failed the entrance exam too many times),

    Funny story: I passed the entrance exam before I realized what I was actually being asked to do. But I couldn’t make it to the follow-up meeting and was dropped as a candidate. I probably wouldn’t have ended up a hit man or anything; probably more like a security guard. On the other hand, they might have decided I was too much of a liability the moment they learned more about my family history. In the end I think everyone was better off with me not getting involved.

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