The dangerous world of illegal drug deals has always offered the chance of big bucks for the enterprising gangsters prepared to do whatever it takes to get what they want… and for the cinema box office it seems audiences can’t get enough of the shocking, illicit exploits of those living on the wrong side of the law.
Inspired by larger-than-life events, riveting new crime thriller Silk Road follows the rise and fall of the infamous darknet site that sent a seismic shock through the World Wide Web. Founded by young, idealistic, Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson, Love, Simon) ‘Silk Road’ is the internet’s first unregulated marketplace, and it soon becomes a multimillion-dollar pipeline for drugs, setting Ross on a collision course with Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty), a disreputable and dangerously unpredictable DEA agent, who will use any means necessary to take him down.
To celebrate the release of Silk Road on UK digital platforms from 22 March, we’ve taken a look back at some of the best real-life stories of high-stakes drug-busts on the big screen.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
The French Connection is not just one of the best examples of the emerging ‘New Hollywood’ movement in American cinema that would turn out countless classics throughout the 70s, but is widely considered one of the greatest crime films of all time. Notable for Gene Hackman’s hard boiled performance as New York City detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle and for a blistering car chase through the streets of the Big Apple, the film would sweep the Oscars with multiple wins including for Hackman and its director, William Friedkin. Perhaps less well-known is that the story is based on actual events, as adapted from writer Robin Moore’s book of the same name. The ‘French Connection’ was the name for an international heroin trafficking operation in the 60s and 70s, where the drugs would arrive in North America via France. As detailed in Moore’s book, two New York City detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, were able to uncover the drugs ring that was responsible for importing the illegal drugs after acting on a hunch and looking into a man they found consorting with gangsters at a nightclub. This hunch pays off when it leads them to discover a large-scale drug trafficking operation and the two Frenchmen responsible for much of the trade, one of them a well-known TV personality!
Martin Scorcese’s timeless tale of mafia life follows young Italian-American Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) on his journey through the beguiling world of New York City mob life. While working with associate Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and his psychotic best pal Tommy (Joe Pesci), Henry will get involved in robberies and murder as he lives the high life, but drugs will prove to be his downfall. As the decades roll by, the glamorous lifestyle of money, women and nightclubs starts to unravel in a fog of cocaine use and paranoia. When Hill sets up a drug deal that leads to him getting arrested by narcotics agents the end is finally on the cards. At the end of his rope and with old friends gunning for him, he cuts a deal and turns informant, leaving him alive but living under witness protection and reminiscing about the days when he used to be somebody…. Scorsese wrote the script for the biographical story with writer Nicolas Pileggi, adapted from his book ‘Wiseguy’ which chronicled the life of the real-life Henry Hill. The actors even consulted with Pileggi to get further insight into their real-life counterparts, with the writer letting them in on the research materials that weren’t included in the book to add further colour to their performances. Hill may have been out of the gangster life but it turned out he had one last scored to make… he was handed a cool $480,000 before the filming started shooting!
Johnny Depp stepped into the shoes of American cocaine smuggler George Jung in the 2001 crime biopic Blow. Adapted from Bruce Porter’s book, Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All, Blow tells the wild story of Jung’s narcotics career, from small-time LA cannabis dealer to multiple-million dollar cocaine trafficker. When Jung discovered the demand for weed in 1970s tinseltown, he soon expanded operations by smuggling large amounts of marijuana from Mexico on a light aircraft. After getting busted by authorities, Jung meets Diego Delgado (based on real-life cartel leader Carlos Lehder Rivas) in prison, and when the pair are released Delgado introduces Jung to the notorious coke kingpin Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Jung was responsible for around 90% of the cocaine smuggled into the US and was personally raking in $250,000 a month for his efforts however due to lengthy prison terms and cash seizures he ended up losing the lot. A man always on the run from the law who has served multiple prison sentences for his crimes, Jung’s outrageous life makes for addictive viewing.
AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)
With acting legend Denzel Washington in the lead role, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is the shocking story of infamous Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas and the efforts by detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) to ensnare him. A shrewd narco-businessman, Lucas rose to the top of the Harlem underworld in the late 1960s and 1970s by cutting out the middleman in the heroin trade. Heading to South-East Asia, Lucas’ operation smuggled bales of drugs into the US on the pallets underneath the coffins of servicemen flown back from the Vietnam War. The film gives equal time to both Lucas’ illegal activities and Roberts’ tireless investigation, in an exciting game of cat-and-mouse which ultimately sees the vicious gangster get his comeuppance. Lucas was apprehended in 1975 and sentenced to 70 years in prison however was out in 1981 due to his testimony in over 100 other drug cases. The twist in this story here is that after his work as a police detective, Roberts started up a private law practice with Lucas as one of his defense clients! Released from jail in 1991, Lucas was consulted on Scott’s film and was often on set providing advice to Washington on his portrayal. A riveting and frighteningly real performance from Denzel make this one unmissable.
THE INFILTRATOR (2016)
Told from the perspective of law enforcement authorities, Bryan Cranston plays Robert Mazur, a U.S. Customs special agent who helped nail Pablo Escobar’s financial ‘dirty money’ organisation in the 1980s. Going undercover as a crooked businessman called Bob Musella, Mazur played a key role in exposing the money-laundering activities of the Medellin Cartel and bringing down the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a corrupt bank which had clients including the cartel and Saddam Hussein! Mazur spent time with Cranston prior to filming so the actor could get to grips with playing a part that had to be split between the real-life Mazur and his undercover alias. An absorbing performance from the always excellent Cranston (who had recently completed the epic role of crystal meth kingpin ‘Heisenberg’ in Breaking Bad), helps deliver the high-stakes suspense as Mazur gets in deep with the vicious members of one of the world’s most dangerous criminal organisations.
Silk Road is on digital platforms 22 March from Vertigo Releasing