In a very real sense we’re all fascinated by crime, and the behaviour of criminals. We all like to think that we wouldn’t do anything like the things we see in our movies and on television, but as that’s very likely the thinking that every criminal starts out with, it’s not so surprising then that there are all kinds of thoughts and plans and counter measures in place to offset this leaning, but there will always be those for whom the regular rules won’t apply – and they’ll tell you that if you’re unlucky. Thankfully, history is full of criminal activities, and many of them have been adapted for the big screen. And some have been very successful indeed. So, here they are: the Top 10 True Crime Movies at the International Box Office.
10 – Zodiac (2007) – $84,785,914
During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a serial killer operated in the San Francisco Bay area. The unsolved murders he was responsible for, and the manhunt for him, are the movie’s prime focus, with director David Fincher offering a clinical yet thrilling exercise in true crime that grips from its opening scene, and which never lets go. The recreation of the period, and the events that occurred back then, is played out on an almost forensic level, and Zodiac‘s amazing cast – which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, and Mark Ruffalo – all give career-defining performances. Gripping despite the absence of a cathartic ending – the Zodiac killer was never caught – this is still a bold and uncompromising movie that remains as impressive now as it was on its original release.
9 – Pain & Gain (2013) – $86,175,291
Body building, kidnapping, blackmail, and torture – three of those things seem like natural bedfellows, but in the mid-1990’s all four elements came together when a Sun Gym employee Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) recruited Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) in a plot to kidnap and extort a ransom from local Florida businessman Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). It was a plan almost doomed to end in disaster, and Michael Bay’s uneven, and superficially appealing black comedy benefits from good performances, and a sense of its own violent absurdity. Not a hit with the critics, Bay and Wahlberg’s names nevetheless helped Pain & Gain in its success, and if it’s a movie neither mentions very often, then this quote by Ed Harris’s detective perfectly sums it all up: “Unfortunately, this is a true story.”
8 – Black Mass (2015) – $99,775,678
The first of three movies on the list that star Johnny Depp in the lead role, Black Mass charts the criminal life and career of South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. His association with the FBI remains an incredible example of real life mutual dependency and manipulation, with both sides certain they were “in control” of the other. As the reptilian Bulger, Depp has the look and gaze of a velociraptor, and his performance is probably his best in a very long time, but ultimately the movie suffers from poor pacing and too many unresolved subplots. There’s terrific support from Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsgaard, and the soundtrack supports the tone and the mood of the movie with aplomb, but again, this is a movie where a lot happens but not all of it matters or has any impact.
7 – Gangster Squad (2013) – $105,200,903
A heavily fictionalised account of the LAPD’s attempts to neutralise crime czar Mickey Cohen, Gangster Squad plays fast and loose with the truth in an effort to be as slick and entertaining as possible. Terrific period detail and a great cast can’t compensate for the movie’s many shortcomings, or the emerging feeling that it’s the violent action sequences that mattered most when the movie was being put together. Still, it’s these same sequences that provide Gangster Squad with the crude energy that makes it acceptable on a visceral level, but if it’s well rounded characters, a coherent plot, or credible dialogue you’re looking for, then this isn’t the movie for you’re looking for.
6 – Changeling (2008) – $113,020,256
The 1928 Wineville Chicken Coop case may not be one of the more widely known criminal cases of the twentieth century, but in the hands of director Clint Eastwood it becomes a fascinating, and thought-provoking drama about police intransigence and the determined efforts of a mother (Angelina Jolie) to convince the authorities that the boy returned to her after her son has been abducted, isn’t really her son. Jolie gives a fearless performance, but while the movie is generally compelling in a “what happens next?” sense, as a whole Eastwood’s decision to dial down the inherent melodrama of the case leads to the movie feeling lacklustre and pedestrian.
5 – Donnie Brasco (1997) – $124,909,762
The second movie on the list to feature Johnny Depp examines the career of Joseph Pistone, an undercover FBI agent. During the 1970’s, Pistone infiltrated the Mafia Bonnano crime family, an assignment that led to the convictions of over one hundred Mafia members. Depp is superb in the title role, but he’s edged out – just – by Al Pacino’s portrayal of Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero, the low-level soldier Pistone uses as a way to gain acceptance by the crime family. Both actors challenge each other in their scenes together, and they’re ably supported by the likes of Michael Madsen and Bruno Kirby. With a terrific script by Paul Attanasio and scalpel-like direction from Mike Newell, Donnie Brasco offers ethical and moral dilemmas, friendships borne out of necessary deceit, and a trawl through the criminal underworld that is both attractive and repulsive – and unapologetically so.
4 – Public Enemies (2009) – $214,104,620
Depp 3.0 sees him as notorious Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, otherwise regarded as Public Enemy No. 1. Michael Mann’s ode to a more lawless, bygone era, plays somewhat as a Western, with Depp as the bad guy and Christian Bale as the good guy, FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Mann’s trademark visual aesthetic is on display as expected, and often to breathtaking effect, and the supporting cast includes the likes of Giovanni Ribisi, Carey Mulligan, Channing Tatum, and Lili Taylor. It’s a movie that has as many detractors as it does supporters, but what can be said with confidence is that it features one of Depp’s very best performances, an impressive level of period detail, and a handful of superbly choreographed action sequences.
3 – American Gangster (2007) – $266,465,037
The life of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and how he became a North Carolina crime lord through his efforts smuggling heroin into the US from Vietnam during the 1970’s, is told in a very heavily fictionalised way that also includes his nemesis, task force detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Directed by Ridley Scott, American Gangster is a pungent, gritty examination of the dark side of the American dream, and while the real Frank Lucas was nothing like the way he’s portrayed by Washington, the movie has him take charge of his criminal empire in bold, vicious strokes that highlight the menace beneath the suave exterior. It does drag in places as the script attempts to cram in as much as it can, but this is still an absorbing, meticulously constructed movie that rewards far more than it disappoints.
2 – Catch Me If You Can (2002) – $352,114,312
Crime comes in various forms and is committed by people from all walks of life – as evidenced by Catch Me If You Can, essentially a caper movie about real life conman Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio). It’s hard not to sympathise with Abagnale as he leads a life, and several lifestyles, that are far removed from his humble beginnings in New York state. In the hands of Steven Spielberg the movie offers a virtual kaleidoscope of funny, sweet-natured moments that are entertaining and delightfully assembled, making this a movie that celebrates Abagnale’s quick-witted charm and ebullient nature, and which rarely complicates matters by criticising his actions or behaviour. Tom Hanks is excellent as the FBI bank fraud agent charged with catching Abagnale, and there’s fine support from Christopher Walken as Frank’s father. Not necessarily one of Spielberg’s best, but definitely one of his most enjoyable movies, and a more than pleasant way to spend nearly two-and-a-half hours.
1 – The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – $392,000,694
DiCaprio again, as Jordan Belfort, the corrupt stockbroker whose excessive lifestyle, paid for by insider trading, brought him to the attention of the FBI (them again!), and precipitated his arrest and subsequent imprisonment. Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street is possibly the moviemaker’s most exuberant and freewheeling movie ever, with an ever-increasing number of directorial flourishes being brought into play, and a sense of overriding fun that becomes contagious the longer the movie continues. However, it’s celebration of the hedonistic times Belfort thrived on (and benefitted from) becomes wearing after a while, and too much repetition threatens to harm the movie’s pace irreparably. DiCaprio is on fine form, and the likes of Margot Robbie and Jonah Hill flesh out their slightly underwritten characters to good effect. Scorsese’s most successful movie at the box office isn’t necessarily his best, but it’s a lot better when it’s not focusing on the excess.