In a cinematic universe dominated by powerful mobsters, charismatic bosses, and criminal empires of epic proportions, we often overlook those more subtle but no less fascinating stories of smaller-scale crime families.
As every woman has known since her teenage years, it’s not always the size that matters, and sometimes it’s better to focus on a narrower, more defined topic instead of the bigger picture.
From the dark beauty of small neighborhood gangs to the internal dynamics of home-grown clans, we will explore five movies that chronicle the lives, struggles, and sacrifices of small crime families on a journey into the dark heart of humanity, where the love of tradition fights with the temptation of evil by dancing in a tireless and dangerous waltz.
Each movie presents a different aspect of this truth, from dark and edgy plays to more thoughtful and moving tales, moving without losing sight of the subject, from breathless action to black comedy and dark figures in the style of old 1950s noirs.
So prepare to enter a world of theft, racketeering, and deception among friends and family, discovering that the worst danger often lies where we think we are safest.
Table of contents
Run All Night (2015)
Many people think we mock movies like Taken because they try to put forward an over-seventy-year-old actor like Liam Neeson as an action hero.
That saga is terrible for many other reasons, but not because of the aging Liam, whom here we see brilliantly polishing all his talent and cinematic charisma in the role of Jimmy Conlon, a former New York gang hitman.
The man was once feared and respected, but today he lives in the shadows, devoured by remorse and alcohol, unable to escape the ghosts of his bloody past and surviving only with the help of his old boss, Shawn Maguire.
Until one day, his old habits resurface when Mike, his son, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and witnesses a murder committed by the young and reckless Danny, Shawn’s own son.
At that point, to protect a son who hates him and is almost a stranger to him, Jimmy must start a war against his old boss and the entire New York family of the Irish mob, fleeing all night despite knowing that the final confrontation is inevitable.
Crushed quite mercilessly by critics, this movie by Jaume Collet-Serra was instead well received by audiences who appreciated the redemption of both the character and actor Liam Neeson in a role finally living up to his immense talent.
As you will understand from the title, we are talking about a continuous escape through the various neighborhoods of New York, playing on the tension and the ever-open eyes of a city that never sleeps and has no mercy for anyone.
The Family (2013)
Another stereotype told by many moviegoers is Luc Besson hasn’t hit a movie since La Femme Nikita and The Professional, evidently because they don’t know about this funny and biting black comedy crime family, by the way then, also relatively recent.
It all begins when the Manzoni family, whose father was one of the ringleaders of the New York Mafia, lands in Normandy under the witness protection program.
Forced into hiding, they become the Blakes: Fred, the former mob boss; Maggie, the devoted but hardened wife; and their two teenage children, Belle and Warren.
Although the new life begins quietly in the peaceful hamlet, old habits are hard to lose.
Now a writer, Fred struggles to suppress his violent instincts while Maggie tries to find peace in the local church. Belle and Warren, on the other hand, soon become known for their cunning and aggressive criminal personalities.
Amid bickering, love, and violence, the Blakes seek a balance between their past and their present undercover life, even as the family, despite everything, remains united.
Unfortunately, things get worse when Fred decides to write his memoirs, thus attracting the attention of their old enemies who want to settle scores once and for all.
Besson combines, as usual, very European visual and narrative taste with a much American adventurous pace, a high-entertainment style that has always been unique and instantly recognizable.
Lots of laughs, a dash of romance, and that bloody villainy of criminals in Besson’s hands become an additional source of fun.
In short, cinematically, it’s certainly an offer you can’t refuse.
Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
One of the names that come back most often in my movie recommendations is that of Woody Allen, and how could it not?
The brilliant American director/writer/actor has been churning a film a year since the 1960s, virtually never missing a beat.
In this case, we stay in England again, after the earlier Match Point and Scoop, following the tragic story of Terry and Ian, two London brothers from a modest family, who find themselves navigating rough waters.
Terry, a mechanic racking up unsustainable debts through gambling, while Ian aspires to fall in love with Angela, an ambitious actress who desires an expensive lifestyle far beyond her reach.
Unable to ask for help from their parents, who can barely keep their small restaurant going, they have no choice but to turn to their wealthy uncle Howard, a successful doctor who owns private clinics worldwide.
Unfortunately, the price will be higher than expected, as Howard asks the two brothers to kill one of his partners to protect his business.
The offer upsets the dynamic between the brothers and catapults them into a new dimension where they will do things they never thought themselves capable of.
This Little crime family is one of the great Woody’s less acclaimed and talked-about movies, probably because it has a darker tone and lacks the irony that usually ingrains his stories.
Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor are a pair of extraordinary brothers and assassins by chance, humanly weak and disorganized, forced into a corner by the ruthless as well as (in his own way) rational Uncle Tom Wilkinson.
A rationality that will bring happiness to no one, as money cannot help the brothers live with the horror of what they have done.
Matchstick Men (2003)
We change story types but remain in the company of a great director, Ridley Scott, the cinematic genius behind such masterpieces as Alien and Blade Runner.
The elder Ridley takes us to the home of Roy Waller, a Los Angeles criminal who spends his time organizing sophisticated scams with his partner Frank and managing his many obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Despite his undoubted intelligence and success as a thief, Roy is a troubled man, a prisoner of a continuous cycle of regular rituals and irrational fears.
The monotony of his days is interrupted and disrupted when young Angela, a teenage daughter he did not even know he had, appears.
Angela is curious, lively, and eager to connect with Roy, bringing a breath of fresh air and chaos to his orderly, controlled world.
Soon discovering how her father makes a living, intrigued, she even asks to learn the trade and get involved in the scams.
Roy is initially dubious and then excited to have a new young and enthusiastic partner to train; still, as is always the case in crime world movies, you should never mix business with family.
Matchstick Men is another one of those cases where critics lukewarmly greeted Ridley Scott‘s work while audiences welcomed this odd comedy-drama with interest.
The group is joined by the gorgeous Alison Lohman, who looks even younger than she really is, bringing just the right amount of innocence and candor to a story with light and dark tones.
Their performances bring to life a big little world of hustlers that any lover of the genre cannot miss under any circumstances.
The Grifters (1990)
For today’s latest movie, we stay in Los Angeles but go back to the early 1990s, following one of the darkest crime families brought to the screen by Stephen Frears, another master who knows the tools of the cinematic trade to perfection.
It all begins when young Roy Dillon, a small-time con man, and handsome California hustler, ends up in the hospital after trying to cheat a bartender out of a bill to pay.
In a more severe condition than expected, his mother, Lilly, whom he hasn’t seen in years, arrives to care for him; he is also entangled with Bobo, a dangerous boss for whom he runs a rigged betting ring.
The meeting/clash with his mother is tougher than expected, especially when she meets his new girlfriend, Myra, who is equally young but already a seasoned veteran of the scams.
In this wacky crime triangle, no one trusts anyone: the two women openly hate each other, while Roy thinks both are only around him to try to get money out of him.
Finally complicating this delicately balanced picture comes Bobo, unable to forgive Lilly for losing a large sum on horse racing, who now demands payment with the interest of what is owed to him.
The Grifters is a perfect noir, where the characters are cynical, brutal, selfish, and perpetually at odds with the whole world, thinking only and only ever of their personal gain.
Priceless is the mother/son relationship between Anjelica Huston, not young anymore but still stunning, along with the irresistible slap-face John Cusack, an unrepentant thief with no obligations to anyone.
If we then add to the equation the even younger and wonderful Annette Bening, as sexy as she is a deadly modern femme fatale, we have an unforgiving story that practically writes itself.