GTA: A Mirrored View

I’ve been watching several nineties crime dramas on Netflix and Amazon Prime recently, movies like CasinoGoodfellasHeat, and Boyz n the Hood, viewing some for the first time.

It’s interesting to realize how much these films have shaped the Grand Theft Auto games–and, sadly, how much those games have borrowed heavily for style and visuals but often dumped theme and intent in the process.

The film allusions are often rather obvious. The Mafiosos in III and IV take obvious inspiration from the faded, past-their-prime, and sometimes desperate characters in Goodfellas or The Sopranos (perhaps most noticeable, besides in-universe promotions for a “Badfellas” movie, is the echoing of the toxic relationship between Tony and Livia Soprano in III‘s Toni Cipriani and his mother). Vice City is far from subtle in its heavy homages to the visuals, characters, themes, and sets of Scarface and Miami Vice. And all the games are heavy with nods and winks to films both in and out of the crime genre.

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A copy of Tony Montana’s mansion appears in Vice City.

In this line, Boyz n the Hood is often cited as an inspiration for San Andreas, while Heat is credited with influencing the heists in IV and V. I had just accepted this as common knowledge, but I was shocked to see just how much these games had pulled from the two films, at a level that is probably at least equal to the debt owed to Scarface.

I was actually left disappointed with San Andreas with my newfound hindsight. Characters and scenarios are borrowed from Boyz n the Hood, in addition to the general setting of an LA-look-alike in the city of Los Santos. But Boyz n the Hood is rich in thoughtful sociopolitical messaging, in avoiding simple dichotomies and obvious solutions. And rather than a presentation of thrilling casual violence, the gunplay in the movie is often brief and brutal, with horrible repercussions. There is in fact very little actual violence presented, though there is the steady percussion of gunshots and helicopters in flight and emergency sirens in the background. Boyz n the Hood refused to glamorize or villainize. It portrayed a toxic environment, poisoned by a racist and indifferent nation, killing its young people in a cycle of events that feels almost outside of the ability of any young person to resist and that preys on impulses of passion and loyalty that I think we all can understand; we as viewers can only hope that Tre Styles will take the lessons to heart learned from his father Furious to avoid the cycle of vendetta-fueled violence. (I don’t know where else to say this, but it was weird to me how much the third acts of A Bronx Tale and Boyz n the Hood are paralleled.)

In contrast, San Andreas largely glorifies gang life. The gang life leads protagonist CJ to wealth, opportunity, and a restoration of his surviving family. Yes, the gang life also sees family and friends killed, but most of the core cast of allies survive to see the end. In fact, the primary villains are those who betray their gang members, in addition to the corrupt cops those traitors work with/for. The enemy is obvious and external, not a creeping existential threat empowered by often-abstract institutionalized racism. One of CJ’s major dramatic hurdles is recognizing that in his efforts to go “legit,” building a sprawling and sometimes-legal business empire, he has abandoned his hood by failing to keep in the gang fight.

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Gangsters with hip-hop style in a low-rider carrying out a hit on foot after a drive-by. This could describe a good portion of San Andreas as well.

I’d like to think that I’m not being naive. In a game where the main verbs are “shoot” and “drive,” I understand that having a concrete antagonist that can be defeated is necessary. It’s power fantasy, lightly toying with myths of impoverished urban life on the streets. It’s about machismo, the same (toxic-) masculine values that fuel a more-than-small portion of the crime genre as a whole. And I also recognize that San Andreas draws on a plethora of crime films and “hood genre” films. I can only comment on those films that I have seen, and I recognize that something might be lost in translation; I might be reading references to Boyz n the Hood where the reference was unintentional or in fact drawn from another film in the genre.

Still, it’s disappointing to find San Andreas borrow so much from a rich and thoughtful story and then distill its visuals into a string of shoot-’em-up scenarios. Furthermore, IV and Red Dead Redemption showed that Rockstar could do more than simply ape classic action dramas; the studio could tell stories about the moral emptiness and ultimate personal loss that accompanies a life of crime, and about the sorts of forces that can lead a person to believe that that life of crime is the only option. Stories about personal choice and accountability, honor and loyalty, the desolation of debt, the cyclical nature of violence, and the overreaching authority of a callous and corrupt government filled these games.

Then for V, we see a simple reversal back to “whee, crime is fun” power fantasy. This is fitting, especially given how deeply indebted the game is to Heat.

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This GTA V mission plays out almost exactly like the first heist in Heat–though the guys in Heat get away clean, while this mission leads into a sprawling shoot-out.

Heat lives and dies on its heists. As for theme…it does not offer simple morals. We are all trapped in cycles we can’t escape, at a personal and institutional level (yes, Rockstar certainly continues to acknowledge that theme in Michael and Trevor’s story). There may be a message about time, or how you spend your life, or attachment, or even family, but it’s difficult to make the argument convincingly, and it largely feels nihilist.

For a film that spends so much time attempting to establish its characters (the entire movie is nearly three hours long!), I had difficulty caring about any of them. The criminals were bad guys–professionals, yes, but willing to drop anything if needed and willing to kill anyone who got in their way. One of them is even worse, a sexually violent killer and a hot-head who the rest of the team attempts to eliminate for being too reckless and violent. And Pacino’s cop character carries the baggage of the obsessed-cop trope, with serial failed marriages and an explosive temper (boy, Pacino over-acted in this one).  Besides De Niro’s crew leader and Pacino’s detective, most of the characters are simply defined, and characters of color especially fall into racist (or racist-adjacent) tropes. But I get that this is a movie that is fondly remembered for the intensely choreographed heists and anxiety-inducing, creeping dread of the cat-and-mouse game between cops and robbers. And I sure as hell enjoyed those elements.

GTA V similarly spent a lot of time attempting to set up its characters, who mostly rested on tropes or were lifted largely from Heat. Michael De Santa looks and acts rather like Neil McCauley (De Niro’s character), serving as a leader of the heist. Fry chef Breedan and young, reckless Chris are combined into Franklin (and Breedan’s quick and ignoble death driving the getaway car echoes the opening bank escape scene in the game). And the sociopathic serial killer Waingro’s appearance and voice and mannerisms and temper, and his willingness to go on killing sprees seemingly for fun, are all channeled into Trevor. There’s even a parallel disabled informant/hacker character who helps line up scores for the crews. One could even say that Chris’s marital problems are lifted onto De Santa’s character to give him added purpose.

The biggest influence of Heat seems to be in the heists used in Grand Theft AutoIV had Heat‘s crazy bank escape, gunmen attempting to flee from law enforcement on foot through the streets, firing assault rifles with big duffel bags of cash slung over their shoulders (“Three Leaf Clover“). But V went further with the replications of heists, placing the opening truck heist into the middle-game (“Blitz Play“), including a marginally similar climactic bank heist (“The Big Score,” though this probably draws more from movies like Die Hard with a Vengeance), and antagonizing the protagonist crew with almost-as-bad government agents much like in the film (this understates the point a little bit–government actors are always worse than the individual criminal in the Grand Theft Auto universe).

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Start of a bank heist in Grand Theft Auto IV.

It’s fascinating to me that after all this time, and all the effort to tell original stories, Rockstar still seems to be regurgitating the plots and visuals of classic films, spliced with its irreverent but increasingly predictable and shallow sardonic humor. Its most effective trick–in both IV and V–has been giving the player enough agency to make one major decision at the end. Will the player attempt to break the cycle repeated through the game, or be consumed by it? And does the player’s choice truly matter when larger forces are at play? Oddly, these third-act choices, which often feel rather railroaded after largely linear stories, are maybe the franchise’s most innovative contributions to the crime drama genre.


 

The GTA fan Wikia helpfully lays out many of the film allusions and influences in the games. By this list, prominent crime films that I would still need to see to more fully contextualize the games include:

  • Menace II SocietyColorsNew Jack CityEasy RiderTo Live and Die In L.A., and Training Day (for San Andreas); and
  • Carlito’s Way (for Vice City).

Maybe when/if I see these other films, I’ll revisit the subject. The above discussion is not an exhaustive list of film references (or even crime genre film references), and there are movies–like, for instance, much of Tarantino’s early oeuvre–that are of course referenced at least in small ways, which I have seen and which I did not discuss above.

But are there any movies that you can think of that seem like obvious influences on the Grand Theft Auto games? Or perhaps other books or games? (For instance, I can’t help but draw some connections to Mario Puzo’s books, especially Fools Die). Feel free to let me know in the comments!

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