Like a lot of people, I'm mildly addicted to crime movies. Never mind that, as a law-abiding lady who poses as much threat as Fredo, I have zero in common with these dudes. That's the whole point! Their insane lifestyle fascinates me, because there's no way I could make it through a shakedown without crying.
But how much of these movies is real underworld stuff and how much is Hollywood bullshit? I don't know any criminals, but I do know a former DEA agent, so I called him up to assess a few films. Jim Doyle has 34 years of law enforcement experience (including with the feds!) and, also, 25 years of experience as my uncle. Below are his takes on a few mobster movies, some general crime flicks with a strong police presence, plus Netflix's buzzy new show Narcos. Here's how Scorsese and Mann stack up:
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Jim: "How do I describe it? Blood, blood, and more blood. I liked it. I thought it was a good movie. I had never seen it before, and I didn't know if it was based on anyone real, so I just looked at it as how a criminal organization would operate. People in crime groups, you don’t tell them who you are, what you are, where you are. You don’t talk on the phone or meet in big groups. I thought it showed how a real group of robbers would actually operate. They were organized; they made sure to keep themselves disciplined. They set rules and if you break them, you’re dead. It kinda reminded me about how the Mexican cartels operate. They’re ruthless, bloody, vicious. I just wish the cop had lived at the end."
Jim: "That I like. That’s a good one. Does it go on in real life? No. Was it entertaining? Yes. It’s well made, and I love both those actors. It shows the ruthlessness of the real hardcore criminal. There are people out there like that."
Training Day (2001)
Jim: "I didn’t like it. It’s too far-fetched. Just the way they portrayed the actual training -- that’s not how it happens. They put this guy in a car with this corrupt cop, and they don't know he's corrupt -- how did they not know that? It’s so obvious. You don’t do that. I know what I had to go through to get where I got. From my real-life experiences, it wasn’t for me."
The Departed (2006)
Jim: "I liked it, but I thought The Departed was a little far-fetched. A little unrealistic about how the a cop just comes out of the academy and goes deep undercover with violent criminals. I always roll my eyes when that happens. But it was fast-paced, and a lot of what went on was true. People don’t really realize how much the Irish mafia was out there, in New England. These guys were well-organized, nasty, and mean."
American Gangster (2007)
Jim: "American Gangster is kinda skewed -- they made it about Frank Lucas, but Nicky Barnes was really the big gangster in Harlem at the time. You see him in the movie, but he's not the focus. Except for it being flip-flopped, though, I thought it was well-done. It absolutely got the horror of infiltration of heroin into Harlem. This is how the coke dealers on the street were born. It just showed how addictive it is, how lucrative it is. Those guys only care about themselves and how much money they can make."
Black Mass (2015)
Jim: "Here’s the deal. It’s based on a book written by two Boston Globe reporters. The book came out when Whitey Bulger was huge. And it portrayed what was known about Whitey, which was very factual, up to him becoming a fugitive. But a lot of the stuff in the movie -- unless you read the book, you might get lost.
"I know a lot about Whitey. When he got arrested -- and the movie does not portray this, which I was disappointed in -- when he got found, the first thing the prosecutor said to the judge was, 'We’re dismissing the original FBI indictment, and we’re re-indicting him on the DEA case.' What he was tried for and convicted for was not the FBI indictment. It was the DEA investigation. But that’s all fine."
Jim: "It portrays the violent culture of the Medellín Cartel pretty accurately. Murphy wouldn't have gotten away with most of those cowboy stunts, though! Like when he shot out the cab driver's tire after Murph rear-ended him. That would definitely get him a few days on the beach. There are so many restrictions on us when we're abroad. Back then, he probably wouldn't have even been allowed to carry a firearm. You were usually escorted by local police -- and you couldn't trust any of those guys. Narcos does show the enormity of the cocaine problem that was going on in the '80s and '90s. We used to have a saying that the Colombians were shipping cocaine into the US by the metric ton, and we in drug law enforcement were buying it back by the gram."