Life Lessons From Gangsters of Modern Cinema

Today, we take a brief look at a selection of gangsters from modern cinema that we can all relate to in one way or another, despite their committing deeds that should make any normal person shudder. Our aim today is to discover, or at the very least consider, what it was that drove these villains to relative success in their chosen professions and draw some sort of lesson from their failings.

With The Godfather in particular, the gangster genre evolved from a collection of hastily made films with all of the depth of spaghetti westerns, into something refreshingly different. The players were complex, multi-faceted and much more human. We, the audience, began to sympathize with the bad guy; the antihero finally had his day.

Here we examine antiheroes from five of the better films in the genre and try to discover what it was about them drove them to succeed and what aspects of their character ultimately caused them to fail. One character was selected from each of five films (Scarface, Goodfellas, Heat, The Godfather and American Gangster), irrespective of the significance of their parts in the movies.

Scarface: Tony

scarfaceTony’s original rise to power was accomplished by doing everything by the book. He was eager to please, sharp and stayed on his toes. Life as a criminal and imprisonment in Cuba had hardened him to the point where he had little or no compassion for anyone other than those closest to him. He wanted, more than anything, to be boss and he was prepared to let nothing stand in his way. After he muscled his way to the top another aspect of his character emerged, extreme arrogance.

“The mightily proud ultimately rot in their own arrogance.” –Sri Guru Arjan Dev Ji

Many would say that Tony’s cocaine use was his undoing, I suggest that it was a mere symptom. It was his arrogance and his constant want of more that took him into business with the Colombians. Furthermore, it was his arrogance, possibly amplified by his voluminous cocaine consumption, that was responsible for the breakdown of his relationship with the Colombians, which resulted in his assassination.

Tony’s arrogance drove him to success and fueled his rise to the top, but when he finally got there it overcame his better judgment and dulled his instincts to a point where it ultimately proved fatal.

Goodfellas: Tommy

goodfellasOf all of the characters in Goodfellas, Tommy was chosen because he was the most flawed. While it would be easy to dismiss him as a ridiculous caricature, Tommy was based on a real person. The real Tommy was perhaps even more frightening than his character in the movie.

Tommy was a mid-level hoodlum who would have done anything to become a made guy. At no stage was Tommy boss material, but he was good at what he did, knew how to keep his mouth shut and had no fear of the consequences, legal or otherwise. Still, there was something about him that meant he was never fully accepted by the mob. It was quite probably his psychopathic nature and unpredictable temper that kept him from making the cut.

Tommy’s inability to consider the consequences of his actions made him an enormous risk taker and enabled him to earn considerable amounts of money as an armed robber. It also made him impulsive and indiscriminate in his use of violence, which was the direct cause of his death.

When anger rises, think of the consequences. –Confucious

Tommy’s fatal mistake was the savage beating and killing of a made man (Billy Batts). The mistake was not so much the commission of the murder as the manner and place in which it was carried out. Had Tommy considered the consequences he would have either waited until a more suitable occasion or seen that things were carried out according to protocol. The real Tommy made the same mistake twice.

Heat: Neil

heatNeil was the leader of an extremely successful team of armed robbers. He jobs were meticulously planned and carried out. It could be argued that one of the reasons for his team’s success was the absolute trust that the core members were able to place in each other; honor amongst thieves. Such trust develops over time when people exist by a similar set of values and Neil was a man of principal.

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” –Confucious

While it could be argued that Neil was greedy, his greed was tempered by his intelligence and despite the problems of the fateful last job, he could have gotten away. Neil’s code dictated that the betrayal of his team and the death of his friend had to be avenged, and the escape that he had planned would leave him with no opportunity to see job done. Who took the risk of going after his enemies and in so doing became a martyr to his values.

The Godfather: Sonny

godfatherSonny was a brutal thug lacked the skills and the mental equipment to successfully manage a large criminal enterprise. He came to be in charge because he had the right surname and commanded the respect of other members of the organization. He perhaps would have enjoyed a much longer life as a simple enforcer, but due to circumstances beyond his control he was thrust into leadership and as a consequence, towards his destruction.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” –Sun Tzu

The respect Sonny had earned from other members of the organization stemmed from his ability to achieve quick results and his likable character. The quick results stemmed from his rashness, he saw only what needed to be done in the immediate future but lacked the ability plan. This is subtly different to the problem of Tommy in Goodfellas, though the two characters do share some similarities.

Sonny’s position meant that he was forced to make decisions. His hotheaded nature and inability to plan meant that most of his decisions were made badly. He was too much of a soldier and not enough of a diplomat to ever be a good boss. Unfortunately for Sonny, this fact not only led to his own death, but also caused significant harm to his family.

American Gangster: Frank

americangangsterAmerican Gangster is not quite in the same league as the other titles that have been examined, but it is of interest because it is based on a true story and Frank is based on a real person. In fact, much of the character of Frank was built around his retelling of his story. It was precisely that point, that resulted in American Gangster being held in less esteem than the other four films that have been discussed, but it is also what makes Frank Lucas such an interesting character for us to examine.

A number of Frank’s recollections were in fact patently untrue. By all accounts, Frank cooperated well with investigators and gave them information that resulted in lengthy prison sentences for other drug dealers, not just the corrupt officials as is claimed in the movie. It has also been suggested, by none other than Bumpy Johnson’s wife, that his relationship with the former kingpin was greatly exaggerated.

The real Frank’s distortion of the truth and desire to be held in a favorable light display a level of underlying narcissism that is not apparent in the movie. If we combine that, with the flaw that was apparent, then it is not so difficult to come to an understanding about how he came to be imprisoned or how he managed to get himself out long before his actual release date.

The Frank of the movie comes across as a person who would have been as good as a captain of industry as he was at leading a massive heroin network. The portrayal of Frank is of a man who’s ruthlessness was tempered with intelligence; someone who knew how to make a point without going to far. It also, for the most part, a person who resisted the temptation to display his wealth ostentatiously. One doubts a man nicknamed “Superfly” had the same sensibility.

What is true, both in the movie and real life is that his ambition drove him to create a highly profitable heroin trafficking and sales network. By all accounts he did not monopolize the Harlem drug trade, but he likely stepped on a few too many toes.

“Envy and desire and ambition drive a man out of the world.” –Mishnah (Oral Torah)

Frank’s overwhelming drive to reach the top saw him attract a great deal of attention, both from his competitors and from the police. It was insatiable and meant that he wanted more long after he should have been satisfied. Such tremendous ambition drives some people to achieve greatness, but when combined with narcissism and a complete lack of ethics it creates the likes of Frank Lucas and indeed, Bernie Madoff.


With the possible exception of Sonny, all of the characters were based, at least in part, on real people. This grounding in reality is what helps us to relate to the antihero, and reminds us that we are not so far removed from them. What separates us? Whether it is one’s moral compass or attitude to risk taking may varies according to the individual, but for the most part I think that it is an ability to realize the inherent good in reigning in certain tendencies that have the propensity to cause us harm; if the characters in question were to answer, they would probably put the difference down to a lack of balls.

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  • Why I’m not working for 2009-08-09 | CISNKY
    11 August 2009 at 3:23 am
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    […] Life Lessons From Gangsters of Modern CinemaA look at gangsters from Tony Montana to Frank Lucas and what drove them to their success and downfall. […]

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