British actor Richard Coyle plays a mid-level drug dealer in London’s underground culture in Pusher, which opens this weekend. The picture (which also marks director Luis Prieto’s English-language debut) follows the downfall of a drug lord’s life, a process that moviegoers are all too acquainted with as a remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1990s thriller. Drug pushers from various walks of life have appeared in films for most of cinema’s history, but especially in the last few decades. If you are selling morphine or marijuana or even moonshine you will have to put an end to your business at some point.
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1. Wesley Snipes in New Jack City (1991)
In Mario Van Peebles’ directorial debut, New Jack City, Wesley Snipes plays the Cash Money Brothers’ Nino Brown, a crack-pusher. When confronted by Scotty (Ice-T), the New York investigator who goes undercover with Nino’s crew, the power-hungry thug claims that none of his actions are personal. With Barry Michael Cooper, who would go on to compose Above The Rim and Sugar Hill alongside Snipes in the 1980s, New Jack City was a launching pad for a long-term collaboration.
2. Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days (1995)
Instead of dealing drugs, Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) promotes counterfeit SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices), which record the wearer’s experiences directly from the cerebral cortex and then recreate the same circumstances, senses and all, for a second wearer who then listens to the recorded recordings backward. Featuring a New Year’s Eve 1999 finale, Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days was a film about pre-Millennium anxiety that was partly inspired by her ex-husband, James Cameron. Although Lenny’s drug is the ultimate getaway, he quickly becomes addicted to his own supply and comes finds a horrific SQUID tape that permanently alters his life.
3. Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road (1958)
According to legend, Robert Mitchum supervised several of the sequences in Arthur Ripley’s Thunder Road. He was not only the star of the film but also the producer and co-writer of the script. As a Korean War veteran moonshine delivery driver, Lucas Doolin, he stars in the film Moonshine Driver. In little time at all, Lucas finds himself involved with Treasury agents, criminals, and members of his own dysfunctional family, all of whom have a stake in his life that borders on murderous. As a result of its alleged resemblance to an actual tale that occurred in Knoxville, Tennessee, Thunder Road became a beloved drive-in movie classic.
4. Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting (1996)
Not every day does an author get cast in the film adaptation of his own novel, but in Danny Boyle’s rendition of Trainspotting, author Irvine Welsh plays the heroin dealer of Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor). It was Welsh’s character, known as “Mikey Forrester,” who famously gave Mark “opium rectal suppositories” that were supposed to provide the addict with one last high but instead gave him severe diarrhea. Prior to Mark’s harrowing heroin withdrawal, this is the episode in which he wants to start over in his new life by sleeping with a 15-year-old girl (Kelly McDonald).
5. Christopher Walken in King of New York (1990)
Frank White, played by Christopher Walken in King of New York, is not your average drug lord. Once released from Sing Sing, the cocaine-pushing bigwig plans to run for mayor before killing his mafioso co-conspirator and a slew of other people. Frank is pitted against Triads, mobsters, and the NYPD in this epic Gotham drug story. His megalomaniacal campaign finally ends at Times Square, but Frank doesn’t score a single point in the race.
6. Darren McGavin in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
With Frank Sinatra as heroin addict Frankie Machine, Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm is a classic Otto Preminger film. A lot of old friends from his past, notably Louis (Darren McGavin), who supplied Frankie with heroin, resurface. Frankie is soon back to dipping out and feeling no pain as a result of Louis’s pressure, which eventually causes him to attack Louis for a fix. Frankie, who is wanted by the police, decides to quit cold turkey and is confronted with shattering tragedy like many addicts.
7. Marília Pêra in Mixed Blood (1985)
Paul Morrissey’s latest film, Mixed Blood, tells the story of a gang of Brazilian youths battling a Puerto Rican gang for control of the Lower East Side’s drug trade, which is currently run by the Puerto Ricans. Rita La Punta (Marlia Pêra), the vicious mother hen leading the Brazilians, is unafraid to send underage subordinates to war. Morrissey’s drug film featured a familiar face alongside Pêra and was the first to feature John Leguizamo, who was characteristically lurid and darkly comic.
8. Paul Richards in Monkey on My Back (1957)
When a boxer with a gambling problem loses his big winnings, then heads to war in the South Pacific and gets malaria, the bad luck just keeps on coming for Barney Ross (Cameron Mitchell). Barney’s condition worsens after a doctor prescribes him morphine. As a result of his heavy reliance on morphine, Barney finds himself in debt to Rico (Paul Richards), a deadly drug dealer. As a result of Rico’s arrest, Barney will be able to say goodbye to the monkey for good.
9. Timothy Olyphant in Go (1999)
Timothy Olyphant portrays Todd, a volatile drug dealer who “gives head before he gives favors” in Doug Liman’s follow-up to Swingers. In exchange for a hefty supply of chewable aspirin, Ronna (played by Sarah Polley) takes advantage of Todd’s generosity (or some such). Todd, who is not in the holiday spirit, is on the hunt for Ronna when he runs with Claire (Katie Holmes), who helps him shed his pusher persona. Unfortunately, he’s a gloomy dealer with a nice interior.
10. Leandro Firmino in City of God (2002)
In Fernando Meirelles’ epic about Rio de Janeiro’s slums, City of God, we watch children growing up in unimaginable situations. It’s not uncommon for criminals to end up as aspiring artists, like Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) or Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino). Li’l Zé becomes a drug lord, but he can’t seem to shake his fascination with the violence and mayhem that made him a nightmare prodigy in the first place. The “Runt” gang, which Zé once belonged to, eventually kills him after he is exposed by Rocket’s pictures.
11. Raymond Burr in Borderline (1950)
“Borderline,” a William A. Seiter film, does not reveal the drug’s name, but Pete Ritchie (Raymond Burr) is the smuggler, making him an enemy of the LAPD and a competitor to Johnny Macklin (Fred MacMurray). Before long, Ritchie is hot on the heels of Macklin, who just absconded with a quantity of the enigmatic narcotic. It’s a tense situation in which Madeleine (Claire Trevor), an undercover officer, and Macklin (Jason Sudeikis) get caught in the crossfire.
12. Clifton Collins Jr. in The Rules of Attraction (2002)
Sean Bateman (James van der Beek) makes a visit to Rupert Guest (Clifton Collins Jr.), a fellow heroin dealer to whom he owes a significant amount of money, in Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction. Sean robs Rupert and flees the scene in a furious kitchen brawl that nearly kills everyone. Rupert is on the trail of our asshole hero after this deed sets off a ripple of terror throughout the remainder of this campus eccentric.
13. DMX in Belly (1998)
During the late 1990s, Hype Williams made his directorial debut with Belly, a film about a gang of high-end crooks operating in New York City. Nas, Method Man, and T-Boz round out the all-musician cast, which also includes DMX as Tommy, a dealer and opportunist who persuades his pals to enter the business of a popular new narcotic. Belly’s New Year’s Eve 1999 finale, in which Tommy plans to assassinate a Muslim leader, is stylistically similar to that of Strange Days (civil rights figurehead Benjamin Chavis).
14. Al Pacino in Scarface (1983)
Tony Montana (Al Pacino) and his “little pal” are well-known to everyone on the planet. To be sure, Pacino’s Cuban drug dealer is the figure that most commonly appears on dorm room walls, a flashy depiction of excess, from his pool-sized hot tub to that desktop pile of drugs. This phrase is one of Tony’s most well-known lines. Once the bullets start raining down on your head, you fall into one of your cheap fountains, where the cost was nothing more than the price of a teddy bear. This is Brian De Palma’s singular epic. Until Scarface comes along, there will be no other film like it.
15. James Franco in Pineapple Express (2008)
If James Franco hadn’t been so believable as Saul Silver, the affable pot dealer who jokes around with Dale (Seth Rogen) in Pineapple Express, would his lethargic Oscar-host performance have made such a stink? No, I doubt it. If you’re searching for a good lift, Saul is a great option on this list of pushers. After Milk and Howl, Franco’s work became more bohemian, sexually ambiguous, and intoxicant-tinged with the creation of this character.