Whether they happen to lead a life of crime themselves or not, most people seem to agree that stories surrounding criminal masterminds are pretty damn interesting. Fast cars, wayward explosions, millions of dollars, and copious amounts of drugs are all things that society finds itself attracted to for better or worse, and all of these topics are likewise favorites of the more felonious amongst us. Given this collusion of interests, it's neither surprising that various screenwriters and directors would think mainstream America wants to watch movies based on criminal enterprises, nor too shocking that these Hollywood insiders have been repeatedly proven correct.
All that said, the part of this trend that becomes a little unsettling is that an incredible number of real-life villains, miscreants, and outright criminals have had their lives and even their illegal activities glorified on the big screen for millions to see. In the worst cases of all, Hollywood movies about criminals can basically paint convicted felons as heroes. Some might argue the moviemakers are simply trying to find the good in anyone, yet another way of looking at it is that these films are promoting unscrupulous behavior and making it look fun.
Showing just how serious the problem can be, some family members of real victims have even complained that movies turned their real-life menaces into lighthearted comedy characters. This might be an extreme example, but on a more low-key level, the general idea has been happening again and again, with Hollywood making it seem like every inch of the crime world is covered in shades of gray. Obviously, that’s not quite the case, so it might be appropriate to take a step back and discuss the true stories of 15 real-life criminals that movies tried turning into heroes.
15 Hollywood Hills Burglars – The Bling Ring
In all fairness to director Sofia Coppola, pretty much everything about the real-life Hollywood Hills burglaries seemed tailor-made for a motion picture, down to the neighborhood in which they took place. Over the span of nearly a full year, eight teenagers successfully robbed a half dozen celebrities' homes, including those belonging to Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Orlando Bloom, and Lindsay Lohan. Neither Coppola nor the cast necessarily did anything to glamorize these robberies, as the entire point, at least in the minds of the criminals, was that they were doing something outrageously glamorous already. Even so, presenting their crimes in such light-hearted fashion and making it look damn fun in the process makes The Bling Ring completely fitting for this list. Not that the victims even cared in this case—Paris Hilton appears in the film as herself.
14 Frank Lucas – American Gangster
Everything one needs to know about Ridley Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster can be summed up in the reactions of the real-life characters profiled within it. Gangster Frank Lucas, portrayed by Denzel Washington, claimed he was excited and found it fun to watch despite not being true. Richie Roberts, the narcotics detective chasing Lucas in the film, criticized the writing for making the drug kingpin appear “almost noble.” As that description implies, the Lucas seen in the film was a family man doing whatever it took to live the American dream. Naturally, the real one accomplished this through brute force and intimidation, all of which is somewhat glossed over in the scenes portraying his success and happiness. Worse than anything the film said about Frank Lucas is how it also defamed a number of real DEA agents in the process, leading to several of them suing producers after it was released, albeit it to no avail.
13 John Dillinger – Public Enemies
It wasn’t enough for Michael Mann to suggest that bank robber John Dillinger was less of a villain than police would claim—in his film Public Enemies, it’s repeatedly stated that most of America already thought Dillinger was a hero. While it’s true the charismatic criminal did have some public support, especially as he became known for his seemingly dichotomous kindness outside of the work place, to say people looked up to and/or idolized the first man placed on top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list is a bit of a stretch. Johnny Depp is already an actor who doesn’t know how to play a character without charm, and in interviews, he described the real Dillinger as the “rock star” of his day. In reality, were a rock star to do half the things Dillinger did, hey would fall out of popular favor the moment his crimes became news.
12 The Sun Gym Gang – Pain & Gain
The term “comedy of errors” generally implies a series of inept characters getting over their heads when attempting to do something far more complicated than they realized. This basically applies to Michael Bay’s film Pain & Gain about a group of Sun Gym employees and customers who kidnapped and then murdered a wealthy fellow member of their establishment. On paper, this makes Daniel Lugo and his co-conspirators look like abhorrent people, yet in the film, their actions are consistently presented as fun and borderline light-hearted. Making matters worse, those terrorized by the Gang are consistently presented as the actual villains of the film, and the sting of this reality wasn’t removed by merely changing their names. In fact, Zsuzsanna Griga, a surviving relative of one of the Sun Gym Gang’s real victims, let her feelings known that she didn’t want the public sympathizing with hardened killers.
11 Steven Jay Russell – I Love You Phillip Morris
A small-time insurance fraudster whose one true crime was following his heart, Steven Jay Russell is another entirely non-violent criminal who nonetheless was far less heroic than the movie about him would imply. As portrayed by Jim Carrey, Russell was the star of I Love You Phillip Morris, not an ode to cigarettes but rather a tale of two gay men who fell in love while serving time. In order to keep that love going, Russell continually broke out of prison and resumed his life of crime so he could pay for Morris to live out his wildest dreams. Given these intentions, it’s almost tempting to agree with the film’s assertion that Russell’s actions were almost noble, especially considering the number of comedic ways he pulled off those real elaborate escapes. Of course, repeatedly evading arrest still doesn’t quite turn one into a good person.
10 Charles Bronson – Bronson
There’s really no upside to having a reputation as one of the world’s most violent prisoners in history. Originally named Michael Gordon Peterson, Charles Bronson chose his new name when becoming a bare-knuckles boxer, using the American actor’s visage to harden his own already considerably tough image. It makes sense that Bronson would have chosen an actor to name himself after, at least based on Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Bronson, which paints the criminal as equal parts a viciously violent soul and a tortured artist. Clever storytelling is one thing, but by having a version of Bronson narrate much of his own life to the applause of an unseen audience almost goes too far, especially as said audience chuckles over his tales of destruction and mayhem. Of course, having spent over 30 years in solitary confinement, Bronson probably does have a highly active imaginary life.
9 Bonnie & Clyde – Bonnie & Clyde
With one exception, it could be argued none of the films on this list would ever have been made if not for Arthur Penn’s landmark 1967 masterpiece Bonnie & Clyde. As the title suggests, the film documents the lives of real-life gang leaders/bank robbers/murderers/all-around criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The type of behavior Bonnie & Clyde took part in had previously only been seen in cinematic villains, and never before did directors try and make it look so fun. In reality, the gang terrorized countless people while knocking off dozens of banks, killing at least 9 police officers along the way. While this is all covered in the movie, it’s presented in a manner that makes Barrow and Parker look like playful kids getting in over their heads because they were young and in love, not quite capturing the vicious killers they really were.
8 John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturale – Dog Day Afternoon
Barely anglicizing John Wojtowicz’s name to Sonny Wortzik did nothing to hide the fact that Dog Day Afternoon was based on a true story and that Salvatore Naturale’s name wasn’t changed at all makes that first tidbit entirely irrelevant. It also isn’t entirely relevant that the real Wojotowicz had somewhat noble intentions when he robbed a Chase Manhattan Bank in 1972, hoping to use the money so his girlfriend could pay for sexual reassignment surgery. That Wojtowicz and his accomplice also did whatever it took to ensure the citizens held captive in the bank were comfortable and unharmed also does little to change the fact they were robbing a financial institution at gunpoint, an obviously very illegal crime. Granted, even the real-life counterparts of these victims were quoted as saying the whole experience was kind of a laugh riot, so maybe there was something heroic about this bank robbery after all.
7 Henry Hill – Goodfellas
“As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” These words spoken by Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas were probably the true thoughts of his character’s real-life counterpart Henry Hill, and for about two-thirds of the subsequent movie, audiences around the world got a firsthand glimpse of exactly why he found the idea so alluring. Of course, being a highly skilled director with lots of experience in gangster-related drama, Scorsese spent just as much time focusing on the downsides of gang life, making it easy for audiences to understand why Hill would later say that being himself was like being an “average nobody.” On top of that, at no point were men like Tommy DeVito or Jimmy The Gent painted in a light that was at all positive, so at least, most of the real-life bad guys were actually portrayed as villains.
6 Andre Stander – Stander
Most of the criminals outlined on this list would probably call themselves heroic in one way or another, and that was definitely the case with Andre Stander. Born to a high-ranking South African police official, Stander despised law enforcement his entire life, and yet entered the business himself as was the family plan. To get back at his old man and annoying co-workers, Stander started robbing banks on his lunch breaks, gradually descending into a full-fledged life of crime. Based on the 2003 film directed by Bronwen Hughes, Stander essentially turned Andre into a countercultural folk hero sticking it to the man like no one else. In one scene, bank owners are even happy to have been robbed by Stander’s gang, a scenario that would be highly improbable in the real world.
5 Richard Kuklinski – The Iceman
It would be impossible to make a wholly flattering portrait of Richard Kuklinski, a professional hitman who killed more than 100 people in the span of two decades, and it’s not as though this was Ariel Vromen’s intention in directing The Iceman. However, the film takes a fairly interesting view of Kuklinski as a family man who was down to his last rope, only becoming a contract killer because he was good at it and had no other way to feed his family. Scenes of Kuklinski murdering countless random nameless victims are intercut with him at skating rinks with his children, making it hard to truly comprehend the horrid monster he was becoming. Of course, that was the whole point, with the dramatic ending of the film matching Kuklinski’s real life. We wonder, though: how does a seemingly loving family cope with the information their patriarch was a serial killer?
4 Jordan Belfort – The Wolf Of Wall Street
Given the number of violent killers on this list, the crimes committed by Jordan Belfort really weren’t all that bad. Sure, he ripped off lots of people for millions of dollars, but Belfort was never outwardly violent in any of his actions, only ever physically hurting himself with outrageous drug use. And, oh boy, is that outrageous drug use ever covered in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Although there are plenty of scenes in the film where drugs are presented as a bad thing, there’s also a constant feeling that having lots of money and easy access to intoxicants is pretty much tantamount to success, at least in Jordan Belfort’s America. By the end of the film, audiences realized that Belfort was in over his head and that none of the wild parties were worth it, but what scenes do viewers remember—the FBI raid at the end or naked Margot Robbie earlier on?
3 Frank Abagnale – Catch Me If You Can
Reformed criminals were still criminals at one point, and nothing Frank Abagnale, Jr. did in his life changed the fact he was one of the most notorious con artists in America all before his 20th birthday. To a teenager, or even an adult, the allure millions of dollars can bring is almost impossible to ignore, so there are no surprises in the fact that Abagnale used his talents to effectively steal a fortune from various airlines, also moonlighting as a fake doctor and fake lawyer. With fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio playing the role in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, it’s equally easy to understand how Abagnale got away with charming so many adults who should have known better. The one problem is that the film also gets audiences cheering for Abagnale to evade arrest, while his real victims had obviously desired the exact opposite.
2 Mark “Chopper” Read – Chopper
Well, if someone is going to go ahead and let a career criminal write a book about himself, the whole fact of him being a pretty terrible person is probably going to get glossed over. When Mark “Chopper” Read’s autobiography was then turned into the film Chopper, the title character would go so far as to describe himself as “just a good bloke down on his luck.” Granted, this isn’t entirely the point of Andrew Dominik’s picture, which at times does show the dark side’s of Chopper’s life, but the overbearing presence of the man who inspired the film and wrote the books it was based on is nonetheless felt throughout. Chopper spent all of 13 months outside of prison from ages 20 to 38, and yet the film about his life barely shows him behind bars, instead portraying all the crimes he committed in that time frame without examining the consequences. And since it looks like actor Eric Bana is having a blast committing the crimes, this could easily give impressionable viewers the wrong idea about Read's character.
1 Robert Stroud – Birdman of Alcatraz
Taking place before Bonnie & Clyde made turning bad guys into good guys cool, John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz took an arguably more dangerous approach to the subject than any other film on this list by simply pretending none of the bad stuff happened. As portrayed by Burt Lancaster, Robert Stroud was a man who made several mistakes (committing murder and being a pimp) in his youth and then gradually became docile, preferring to spend all his time raising birds instead of terrorizing prison guards or other victims. This wins him the approval of both the system and countless onlookers from the outside, who repeatedly petition for Stroud to receive lesser sentences in lieu of his ornithological work. In reality, Stroud was such a vicious killer that his doctor referred to him as a “psychopath,” and other criminals who actually met the man were quick to point out that nothing about Lancaster’s subtle, quiet performance was anything like the complete jerk they knew in real life.
Sources: IMDb; Screenrant