Posted October 29, 2018 by Chris Hick in Film Reviews

Gangsta (2018) Review

In the classic old Warner Brothers gangster film, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), James Cagney plays ‘Rocky’ Sullivan, a bad boy who learns to be a tough gangster in the New York tenement district. Growing up and having had brushes with the law, his best friend Jerry (Pat O’Brien) becomes a Catholic priest and Rocky’s best girl (Ann Sheridan) was bullied by him when they were kids because he really liked her in adulthood becomes his girl. Of course Rocky becomes a brief big time gangster and is led further astray by his other best pal (Humphrey Bogart). Similar themes of  being brought up on the urban Mean Streets, the strength of friends, family and loyalty runs through the new tough Dutch-Belgian production, Gangsta (2018), which of course is given a modern day tough edge involving bling, fast women, guns and drugs (instead of liquor). The protagonists in Gangsta are Moroccan immigrants, as opposed to the Irish ones in Angels with Dirty Faces, or indeed the Italian immigrants in Martin Scorsese’s gangster films or the Cuban immigrants from Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983) of which this film makes many references.

Similar experiences for immigrants also play out in the excellent and underrated British film, My Brother the Devil (2012) which follows the experiences of two Arab brothers to immigrant parents growing up on a South East London estate and the different paths they take. The similarities between this British film and the Belgian one are clear and not because one influenced the other, but more to do with shared experience. It would be a fair comment to say though that the Belgian film is more over the top to the subtle and perhaps more realist British one and moves into such action territory as say the French heist film, Dobermann (2007) with the bling of say Rise of the Footsoldier 3 (2017). In the UK the gangster film has had a big resurgence in recent years since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) with the Essex based story of the Rettendon murders having dozens of films made about it. But only recently the immigrant element has started to take a hold.

It opens with titles telling us that the film is “kind of based on true shit”. The commentator and its main character is Adamo (Matteo Simoni), a half Italian, half Moroccan from immigrant parents who, by his own admission has the temperament of these two Mediterranean parts of the world. He lives and grew up in the tough Antwerp estate of Kiel, an urban part of the city with a high population of immigrants. He has two good friends and a female friend, Badia (Nora Gahib) from childhood. We zip through their childhood and youth years spent playing video games, getting up to mischief and gobbing over balconies. For the first half an hour there is little that is likable about these characters until it is revealed that Adamo’s parents, his mother who had raised him as a Catholic and his Moroccan father are both killed when caught up in a convenience store robbery when he was 10-years-old. He is then adopted by Badia’s parents who run a pizza place where Adamo works.

All the friends do is aspire to be gangsters. When a big time African immigrant gangster, Orlando-Marie (Werner Kolf) tries to get Badia’s father involved in selling cocaine instead of hashish, he refuses but Adamo goes behind his back and agrees to work for Orlando. When a job goes wrong and they are forced to ditch a bag of cocaine in the river when chased by crooked cops, Orlando threatens Adamo and his friends, but is saved by Badia who is dating Orlando. Risking their lives, they head into the big league by retrieving the cocaine and selling it themselves, also risking the wrath of the Colombian cartel as well as Orlando.

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, themselves Belgian Moroccan immigrants, they have made several films as a team dealing with the temptations of crime and immigrants. In recent years such neighborhoods as the Brussels suburb of Moellenbeek have become the focus of much negative attention with some of the Bataclan terrorist attacks in 2015 coming from this area and having connections there. In recent years Antwerp too has risen as a crime capital in the same league as say Marseilles. Of course once the action starts in the film it seems to go way over the top with killing and retributions leading to dozens of death. Orlando-Marie promises World War III with a rival Dutch gang and that is exactly what the film delivers. It would seem once the directors lift the lid on the violence it’s hard to pop it back on again.

Stylishly shot in digital Gangsta draws on films such as Scarface and tries to keep it “real” in the hoods where immigrant live in the Flemish lands, highlighting many of the social problems these western European countries face, even if again the action and violence does seem excessive in the last hour of the film. The language used is also strong, mixing Flemish with English and keeping it ‘gangsta’. There is also much humour to be had here, but as with the most classic of gangster features, despite the moral conclusion, a easily led viewer could draw temptation to emulate, as the protagonist does with Tony Montana.

Chris Hick

Chris Hick