What movie comes to mind when you read the words “mob film?” The first thing that came to mind was probably The Godfather, or possibly Scarface, but it most likely wasn’t something along the lines of Eastern Promises, or Notes from the New World, even though the latter two films are just as well made and critically acclaimed. The difference, it would seem, is in the different faces presented and the image that we all have in our collective head of what the mafia looks like; this is actually pretty ironic considering that most of us are probably much more acutely aware of the Russian Mafia than the Italian Mafia in real life. This is certainly true for those of us living anywhere west of the Rockies.
Perhaps there is just something comforting about the traditional mob film, with their severed horse heads and fish wrapped in bulletproof vests … it’s just not as scary as ordinary people mysteriously disappearing without a trace. The soft spoken old mafia Don never threatened us law-abiding-citizens after all, only other bad guys; but the new mob can be, for some of us, an intriguing and terrifying new concept. I for one know that nowadays when the mafia comes up in conversation around me it is almost always referencing the Russian Mob, and almost never the old Italian Mob. I am much more likely to hear about some (hopefully fictitious) Uncle Ivan these days than I am a Cousin Guido, and I have heard many more faux threats in bad Russian accents in recent years than the bad Italian impressions I remember from my childhood.
But for some reason this new perception of reality has been slow to translate to mob films, and movies that deal with the Russian Mob are still pretty few and far between. The small screen has followed closely in Hollywood’s footsteps with high production value shows about the old mafia, like the Sopranos being prominent in the public consciousness while we have yet to even see a whole show about the Russian Mob (we are not counting The Americans as a mob show). Though some shows, like Criminal Minds, actually have given pretty equal airtime to each ethnic version of the mafia (Italian, Russian, and Irish) they are not actually about the mafia, they just occasionally feature it.
Perhaps all of this ultimately gets back to most moviegoers treating film as a method of escape from day to day life, rather than a platform for controversy, hard truths, and revolutionary ideas. The mob films that we think of when the mafia is mentioned are, though violent, more entertaining than threatening, depicting wars between various “families,” smuggling operations , and organized crime, but with little to no involvement from the general public, and almost no true civilian casualties (yes, there are exceptions to this but most mob movies do follow this pattern.) Perhaps Hollywood keeps pushing out the same type of mob film because we just keep lining up to watch them, but in my more cynical moments I think it may just be because they are largely afraid that we just don’t want to deal with the level of harsh reality involved in a film about the Russian Mafia. I truly hope it is not the latter; I would like to think that Hollywood is capable of keeping up with the times, and every once in a while it seems like it may be doing just that, but I think that in my heart I know that mainstream film studios are just too cowardly to venture too deeply into a new generation of mob films, so I guess I’ll just have to keep watching independent films instead.