Monday, January 4, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Let Him Have It (1991); Layer Cake (2004); State of Grace (1990)

Let Him Have It (1991)

Director: Peter Medak

A harrowing drama about one of the most personal tragedies in criminal and judicial history.

Let Him Have It is a documdrama about the life of Derek Bentley, a mentally inferior young man who, in London of 1953, falls in with the wrong people and pays the ultimate price. Derek is a young, impressionable 19-year-old who is lured into a small gang of wanna-be criminals made up of boys still in secondary school. The leader is Chris Craig, an especially loud-mouthed lad who works hard to look and sound like the crooks glamorized in Hollywood gangster movies. He and three of his cohorts walk around town dressed in dark trenchcoats and black fedoras, trying as hard as possible to imitate Chris's authentically criminal older brother. Derek, an otherwise gentle soul, is taken in by the strong attitude and image of Chris's gang, and he begins to sneak away from his parents' home to hang out with them.

On the most fateful of nights, Derek finds himself on a warehouse rooftop with Chris, both of them playfully looking for a way to break in. The police arrive, however, and when one of them apprehends Derek, Chris pulls a gun. As the police officer demands that Chris turn over the weapon, a frightened Derek calls out "Let him have it, Chris," which Chris misunderstands as a prompt to shoot the officer. A firefight and standoff ensue, ending with Chris injured from a long fall, one officer wounded, and another dead by Chris's hand. The real tragedy begins when Derek and Chris are brought to court, where the penalty for their crimes is execution.

The movie is a strong one, and the tragedy of the situation is palpable. Thanks to very strong acting and pacing, what could have been a depressing slog is actually a sad but compelling account. Very much in the vein of Kieslowski's 1990 film Decalogue Five: Thou Shalt Not Kill and the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking, with their the juxtaposition of illegal murder with legal execution, Let Him Have It forces viewers to think long and hard about capital punishment.

As with any film which depicts a tragedy which happened in reality, the dramatization offers a buffer which a documentary would not. However, for cases which happened longer in past, such as this one, I feel that a well-crafted and respectful docudrama is the closest we can get to truly feeling the loss the the Bentley family did at the end of this affair. Let Him Have It is not a movie which needs to be seen more than once, but once is all but mandatory.

Layer Cake (2004)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

An entertaining British gangster flick, adding depth to the Guy Ritchie brand of films which preceded and obviously influenced it.

Layer Cake tells the story of a highly intelligent, never-named drug dealer (Daniel Craig) who is on the cusp of sealing a final "big deal" in London which will allow him to retire from the sordid, dangerous world of crime. As such stories go, though, things get extremely complicated, extremely quickly.

Up to the point of the tale's beginning, "Mr. X" has been expert at keeping his head down and remaining under the radar of more powerful or more volatile criminals in his industry. However, once the wrinkles start to pop up, X must navigate lethally treacherous waters infested with British gang lords, headstrong power-grabbers, and his own conscience. Following the actions and reactions of X certainly makes for a sometimes fun, sometimes harrowing, and often violent tale.

The style and construction of the movie is quite familiar to any who have watched 1998's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or 2000's Snatch, the two seminal modern British gangster movies by Guy Ritchie. There's a dizzying array of shadowy, vicious characters, and more than a little gallows humor sprinkled throughout. Compared to those earlier movies, though, Layer Cake ratchets down the insanity and overt comedy in favor of taut suspense. This is carried through with great performances all around by the brilliant cast, spearheaded by a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig.

One could criticize the movie for borrowing too heavily from Ritchie's hyperspeed style of storytelling (director Matthew Vaughn was, in fact, a producer of Ritchie's films), but this was easy for me to forgive. While there is nothing of great ingenuity here in terms of subject matter or methodology, Layer Cake feels enough like its own movie not to be overly harsh with any critique. It goes deeper into the protagonist's psyche than any Ritchie film ever dared, which prevents it from being a mere clone.

State of Grace (1990)

Director: Phil Joanou

If timing is everything, then State of Grace had nothing going for it from the jump. This is a shame, as it is a great gangster movie.

I had never even heard of this movie before I came across it on a "best gangster films" list. When I saw the cast list, I was further amazed that it was never on my radar. The movie follows young undercover police officer Terry Noonan (Sean Penn), who has returned to his old neighborhood in the Irish section of New York's Hell's Kitchen. Under the guise of a drifter looking to get back into the criminal lifestyle, he reunites with old friend Mickey Flannery (Gary Oldman), and the two soon begin cracking jokes and skulls, alike. Terry's ultimate plan is to obtain incriminating evidence on Mickey's older brother, Frankie (Ed Harris), who has become the boss of the local Irish mob. However, doing the right thing as a cop becomes far more difficult for Terry as he becomes further entrenched in his old environment.

The characters, plot, acting, and general direction of State of Grace are excellent. The drama between Noonan and the Flannerys is organic and tense, with a palpable emotional depth. The story unfolds and intensifies as well as the very best crime dramas. In addition to the great actors mentioned above, several supporting roles are played expertly by great talents like Robin Wright, John C. Reilly, and John Turturro.

At this point, you many be wondering how a high-quality movie, with such an outstanding cast, is not better-known. I wondered the same thing until I discovered that State of Grace was released on September 14, 1990. For those without a photographic memory for film release dates, this is the exact same day that Goodfellas was released. Yikes. When forced to go head-to-head against one of the absolute greatest gangster movies in the history of cinema, anything less than The Godfather would pale in comparison. Such was the fate of State of Grace. It could not have helped that, by this time, Martin Scorsese was well-established as a brilliant director, so that his return to New York crime tales was bound to drown out even an outstanding effort by a relative newcomer like State of Grace director Phil Joanou. No, Joanou's movie is not as great as Goodfellas, but it is one of the best of its kind.

The commercial and historical fate of State of Grace is rather sad. However, I highly recommend the movie to anyone who loves the gangster genre.