The Wild True Stories Behind Some of the Most Epic Crime Movies Ever
"Freeway" Rick Ross and others gave us the skinny on a few classics and some new contenders.
From left, Johnny Depp in Black Mass; Nas and DMX in Belly
The critical acclaim and popularity of podcasts like My Favorite Murder and the first season of Serial, and TV shows like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and OJ: Made in America speak to the public's gigantic appetite for true crime. Cinema, too, mines real crime to tell compelling stories often, and has since as early as 1901's Stop Thief! Here, we've spoken to some true-crime authors/experts and real-life criminals about some of the most epic and violent tales that have made (or are poised to make) their way to the silver screen.
Entourage star Kevin Connolly's forthcoming John Travolta flick is currently set to open June 15, and is hopefully not as bad as the words "Kevin Connolly's forthcoming John Travolta flick" would suggest. It tells the story of John Gotti, the Mafia icon known as the "Teflon Don" for his non-stick ability to dodge federal charges. Gotti's style and swagger made him the perfect fodder for Hollywood, and until his death in prison in 2002, he reveled in his notoriety.
“The hype is deserved, because Gotti was a very rare bird among mob bosses,” Larry McShane, the author of Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante, told VICE. "Look at the heads of the families in the 1980s compared to him: 'Chin' Gigante, Vic Amuso, Joe Massino, Vic Orena—not the kind of guys who go for $2,000 suits or late night dinners on the Upper East Side, or get chased around by TV reporters like John Miller. Or get movies made about them.” Fittingly, Travolta spent hours with John Gotti, Jr. and the widow Victoria Gotti to nail the part.
White Boy Rick (2018)
Slated for a September 21st premiere, the Matthew McConaughey–starring film details the life and times of Richard Wershe Jr., a.k.a., White Boy Rick. The dealer turned informant, who became the drug lord du jour mid-1980s Detroit, was paroled from his life sentence in Michigan last summer and is now doing a five-year sentence in Florida for his dealings with stolen cars while he was in the witness protection program.
“Nobody thought he would reach that far up the chain in an undercover capacity and be that good at playing the role,” Detroit true-crime historian Scott Burnstein, who consulted on the upcoming film, told us. “Once he did, there was no looking back. His innocence was prostituted and lost, and those who put the operation he was involved in into motion looked to cover their tracks at all costs. The tale of White Boy Rick was tailor-made for the big screen. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.”
American Made (2017)
Barry Seal, the brash, smart, and reckless pilot Tom Cruise plays in 2017's American Made, eventually got caught up in his own ego and greed, hauling caravans of cocaine for the likes of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel all the while working as a DEA informant with ominous CIA ties.
“Barry was pleasant person to talk to socially, friendly, and generous,” Del Hahn, a friend of Seal's and the former FBI agent who authored Smuggler's End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal, told VICE. "It is an example of how the Witness Protection Act fails because it's not mandatory," Hahn said of Seal's grisly end.
Black Mass (2015)
Before he was portrayed by Johnny Depp, Boston's Whitey Bulger was part of the most powerful Irish mob in the country. At his height, he was little different than other ruthless killers who rule by fear and intimidation. His legend, however, grew out of the 16 years he spent on the lam after he fled Boston in 1995. He was the number-two most-wanted man in the world, just behind Osama Bin Laden.
“The Whitey Bulger scandal was the biggest black eye in the history of the FBI," Mark Silverman, a former Boston mob associate, and the author of Rogue Mobster: The Untold Story of Mark Silverman and the Boston Mafia, told VICE. "His story is unique in the fact that he became the most powerful mobster while his brother became the most powerful politician. Add in the fact that the FBI made all of it possible—rather than become an informant, which many believe he was, Whitey paid the FBI and called the shots. His cunning and intelligence allowed him to flip the script.”
Kill the Messenger (2014)
In the mid-80s, "Freeway" Rick Ross became the poster boy for the failures of the War on Drugs. Through a CIA operative named Oscar Danilo Blandon, San Jose's Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb discovered that Ross was selling cocaine for the CIA in order to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. On-screen, Michael K. Williams played a fearsome Ross, while Jeremy Renner went down the rabbit hole as Webb.
“At the height of my career I was doing 100 keys a day," Ross told VICE, "Some days I did 200 keys, so you figure at $15,000 a kilo, that’s $1,500,000. There’d be days that I took in three million. Even though I did want some fame and recognition, I never knew it could go to this level. Gary Webb found out everything.”
The Iceman (2013)
Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, portrayed in 2013 by actor Michael Shannon, was a Mafia hitman who claimed to have taken contracts on and murdered over 100 people. Undercover ATF agent Dominick Polifrone, who made it into the film's "Special Thanks," was the man who brought him down.
“[We] had a lot of circumstantial evidence,” Polifrone told VICE. “But once Kuklinski was telling me everything, we had direct evidence for each crime he committed. It just fell into place. It was an unusual case because he murdered people with pure cyanide and they couldn’t it figure out."
Alpha Dog (2006)
The story of Jesse James Hollywood truly is stranger than fiction. As portrayed in the 2006 film by Emile Hirsch (as "Johnny Truelove"), he wasn’t a street-kid who came from nothing, he was just a free-wheeling dealer on a power trip. “This is exactly the kind of story that, for better or worse, makes great material for books, documentaries, and of course Hollywood films,” Christian Cipollini, the author of Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend, told us. “The hype surrounding this case almost clouds entirely the fact that an innocent kid lost his life here. It's an important tale because so many aspects of it demonstrate how the tragic downward spiral of situations can create a perfect storm of variables—money, machismo, paranoia, impulsiveness, fear, and bad advice—which leads to murder.”
Paid in Full (2002)
Back in the 1980s, when crack was flooding New York City, Azie Faison, Alberto “Alpo” Martinez, and Rich Porter were the young kings of Harlem's drug trade before the three fell victim to the devices of the drug game themselves. (Martinez murdered Porter out of greed, while Faison was almost killed in a robbery gone wrong.) Paid in Full stars Cam’Ron, Wood Harris, and Mekhi Phifer, and was produced by Jay-Z and Damon Dash.
“[Faison, Martinez, and Porter] were friends and Harlem crack cocaine dealers who operated in the 1980s,” Ron Chepesiuk, who authored Gangsters of Harlem, told VICE. “There were hundreds of individuals like them in the hood, because the drug trade was so profitable. Greed and money eventually destroyed their relationship."
"It is a sad, even tragic story," Chepesiuk explained. "Alpo was a snitch and killer, got caught, and went to jail. Now he’s in the witness protection program. Porter got himself and his brother killed. If anybody is a hero in the story, it’s Azie Faison, who turned his life around and is now doing good.”
Starring rappers Nas and DMX, Hype Williams's film about two childhood friends who get caught up in the streets is a classic. What's less known is that screenwriter Anthony " Romeo" Bodden, a Hollis, Queens native, loosely based the story on two gangsters he grew up with, Alfred “Al Monday” Cleveland and John “Shakim Bio” Edwards. The film's Omaha, Nebraska, setting was actually Lorain, Ohio, and Al Monday, who was the basis for DMX's "Buns" character, is doing life in an Ohio prison.
“[Nas's character] Sincere didn't really exist,” Shakim Bio, who wrote about street life in The Omega Jon Christ - The Last Illest and is currently incarcerated with Al Monday in Ohio, told us. "That's Romeo narrating the story because he was around us more where he got to see mad shit. He told the story from a narrative side by making himself a character. I had Lorain on smash from 1988 to 1991. My character was the grimy one, Knowledge, who really put Buns onto Nebraska."
"A lot of the movie's shit came from real events and scenarios," Bio said. "I was in tune with Romeo while I was in United States Penitentiary Terre Haute, but we had no input in the movie."
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.