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True Stories Behind Some of the Most Epic Crime Movies Ever

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The critical acclaim and popularity of podcasts like My Favorite Murder and the first season of Serial, and TV shows like Making a MurdererThe Jinx, and OJ: Made in America speak to the public’s gigantic appetite for true crime. Cinema, too, mines real crime to tell compelling stories often, and has since as early as 1901’s Stop Thief! Here, we’ve spoken to some true-crime authors/experts and real-life criminals about some of the most epic and violent tales that have made (or are poised to make) their way to the silver screen.

Pain and Gain (2013)


The 2013 was loosely based on a series of articles that ran in The Miami New Times in 1999, which detailed the crimes of The Sun Gym Gang, a group of recidivist bodybuilders who connected through a love of hard workouts and easy money. The gang conspired to kidnap Schiller, a former business partner of one of the men, force him to sign over his life and then kill him.

Daniel Lugo, played by Wahlberg, was the conniving leader and according to Schiller a “lethal manipulator”, while in the film he is nothing more than a vehicle for Wahlberg’s now trademark brand of comedic tough guy. In the film, they come across like the three stooges practising a bizarre act of steroidal slapstick that spills over into violence. In reality, they became the worst combination of manipulation, muscle and murderous intent.

White Boy Rick (2018)


The Matthew McConaughey–starring film details the life and times of Richard Wershe Jr., a.k.a., White Boy Rick. The dealer turned informant, who became the drug lord du jour mid-1980s Detroit, was paroled from his life sentence in Michigan last summer and is now doing a five-year sentence in Florida for his dealings with stolen cars while he was in the witness protection program.

“Nobody thought he would reach that far up the chain in an undercover capacity and be that good at playing the role,” Detroit true-crime historian Scott Burnstein, who consulted on the upcoming film, told us. “Once he did, there was no looking back. His innocence was prostituted and lost, and those who put the operation he was involved in into motion looked to cover their tracks at all costs. The tale of White Boy Rick was tailor-made for the big screen. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.”

American Made (2017)


Barry Seal, the brash, smart, and reckless pilot Tom Cruise plays in 2017’s American Made, eventually got caught up in his own ego and greed, hauling caravans of cocaine for the likes of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel all the while working as a DEA informant with ominous CIA ties.

“Barry was pleasant person to talk to socially, friendly, and generous,” Del Hahn, a friend of Seal’s and the former FBI agent who authored Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal, said. “It is an example of how the Witness Protection Act fails because it’s not mandatory,” Hahn said of Seal’s grisly end.

Black Mass (2015)


Before he was portrayed by Johnny Depp, Boston’s Whitey Bulger was part of the most powerful Irish mob in the country. At his height, he was little different than other ruthless killers who rule by fear and intimidation. His legend, however, grew out of the 16 years he spent on the lam after he fled Boston in 1995. He was the number-two most-wanted man in the world, just behind Osama Bin Laden.

“The Whitey Bulger scandal was the biggest black eye in the history of the FBI,” Mark Silverman, a former Boston mob associate, and the author of Rogue Mobster: The Untold Story of Mark Silverman and the Boston Mafia, said. “His story is unique in the fact that he became the most powerful mobster while his brother became the most powerful politician. Add in the fact that the FBI made all of it possible—rather than become an informant, which many believe he was, Whitey paid the FBI and called the shots. His cunning and intelligence allowed him to flip the script.”

Kill the Messenger (2014)


In the mid-80s, “Freeway” Rick Ross became the poster boy for the failures of the War on Drugs. Through a CIA operative named Oscar Danilo Blandon, San Jose’s Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb discovered that Ross was selling cocaine for the CIA in order to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. On-screen, Michael K. Williams played a fearsome Ross, while Jeremy Renner went down the rabbit hole as Webb.

“At the height of my career I was doing 100 keys a day,” Ross said, “Some days I did 200 keys, so you figure at $15,000 a kilo, that’s $1,500,000. There’d be days that I took in three million. Even though I did want some fame and recognition, I never knew it could go to this level. Gary Webb found out everything.”

Alpha Dog (2006)


The story of Jesse James Hollywood truly is stranger than fiction. As portrayed in the 2006 film by Emile Hirsch (as “Johnny Truelove”), he wasn’t a street-kid who came from nothing, he was just a free-wheeling dealer on a power trip. “This is exactly the kind of story that, for better or worse, makes great material for books, documentaries, and of course Hollywood films,” Christian Cipollini, the author of Lucky Luciano: Mysterious Tales of a Gangland Legend, told us. “The hype surrounding this case almost clouds entirely the fact that an innocent kid lost his life here. It’s an important tale because so many aspects of it demonstrate how the tragic downward spiral of situations can create a perfect storm of variables—money, machismo, paranoia, impulsiveness, fear, and bad advice—which leads to murder.”

Belly (1998)


Starring rappers Nas and DMX, Hype Williams’s film about two childhood friends who get caught up in the streets is a classic. What’s less known is that screenwriter Anthony ” Romeo” Bodden, a Hollis, Queens native, loosely based the story on two gangsters he grew up with, Alfred “Al Monday” Cleveland and John “Shakim Bio” Edwards. The film’s Omaha, Nebraska, setting was actually Lorain, Ohio, and Al Monday, who was the basis for DMX’s “Buns” character, is doing life in an Ohio prison.

“[Nas’s character] Sincere didn’t really exist,” Shakim Bio, who wrote about street life in The Omega Jon Christ – The Last Illest and is currently incarcerated with Al Monday in Ohio, told us. “That’s Romeo narrating the story because he was around us more where he got to see mad shit. He told the story from a narrative side by making himself a character. I had Lorain on smash from 1988 to 1991. My character was the grimy one, Knowledge, who really put Buns onto Nebraska.”

“A lot of the movie’s shit came from real events and scenarios,” Bio said. “I was in tune with Romeo while I was in United States Penitentiary Terre Haute, but we had no input in the movie.”


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