Ten Best Drug Movies

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Illegal drug/war on drugs movies abound in Hollywood. Blow, Traffic, The Man with the Golden Arm, The French Connection, Scarface, Less Than Zero, New Jack City and Reefer Madness top the best movie list.

Illegal drugs are everywhere, especially in the movies. The drug theme is not a particularly new one in Hollywood, but in recent years it has been elevated to an art form.

Here are ten illegal drugs/war on drugs movies that no film fan should ever miss. Inhale the cinematic quality...

Blow (New Line Cinema, 2001)

Johnny Depp stars as George Jung, a New Englander who finds his "niche" in southern California during the 1960s. Not wanting to end up a poor working stiff like his father Fred (Ray Liotta), George begins dealing in marijuana and then the more lucrative cocaine (blow), eventually becoming one of the major drug dealers in the United States. Johnny Depp gives an outstanding performance as Jung, with Penelope Cruz, Franka Potente, Rachel Griffiths, Paul Reubens and Jordi Molla in mind-blowing support. One of the best scenes takes place in Columbia, where Jung meets legendary drug cartel king Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis). One almost sympathizes with Jung in one memorable scene, where he is told that his stashed millions in drug profits in a Panama bank are no more, confiscated in a power move by dictator and fellow dope pusher Manuel Noriega. Poetic justice?

Great line: "I was busted. Set up by the FBI and the DEA. That didn't bother me. Set up by Kevin Dulli and Derek Forreal to save their own asses. That didn't bother me. Sentenced to 60 years at Ottisville. That didn't bother me. I'd broken a promise. Everything I love in my life goes away." - Johnny Depp as George Jung 

Director: Ted Demme 

On DVD: Blow (Kinowelt Home Entertainment, 2002) 

Johnny Depp as George Jung in Blow (2001) - New Line Cinema

Traffic (USA Films, 2000)

The war on drugs unfolds from three different angles in this hard-hitting, offbeat film. Michael Douglas plays Ohio Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield, who is tapped by the President to become the nation's drug czar. Wakefield tries to do his job, but is quickly sidetracked at home when his own teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) turns to illegal drugs. The two other stories center on a Mexican general's (Tomas Milian) corrupt campaign against drug traffickers south of the border and a young, naive wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose husband is jailed as a major drug dealer. Benicio Del Toro, Amy Irving, Don Cheadle, James Brolin and Miguel Ferrer offer fine support, with real-life U.S. senators Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, Don Nickles, Orrin Hatch and Charles Grassley playing themselves at a Washington cocktail party.

Great line (to DEA agents on the war on drugs): "You guys remind me of Japanese soldiers on deserted islands who still think World War Two is still going on. The fact is that your government surrendered this war a long fucking time ago." - Miguel Ferrer as Eduardo Ruiz 

Director: Steven Soderbergh 

On DVD: Traffic (Universal, 2002) 

The Man with the Golden Arm (United Artists, 1955)

Frank Sinatra stars as Frankie Machine, an ex-con, card dealer and aspiring drummer who struggles to stay off the big "H" in the old neighborhood. A one-time heroin addict, Frankie had cleaned up his act while in prison, but soon succumbs to the lure of "horse" once again, seeking out drug dealer Louie Fomorowski (Darren McGavin). Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang and Robert Strauss are along for the ride into heroin addiction hell. Watch Sinatra's Frankie go cold turkey in Kim Novak's apartment, fighting his inner demons as he tries to kick the monkey off his back for good. A groundbreaking movie, with Elmer Bernstein delivering a tough, jazzy music score.

Great line (to Frank Sinatra): "The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn." - Darren McGavin as Louie 

Director: Otto Preminger 

On DVD: The Man with the Golden Arm 50th Anniversary Edition (Hart Sharp Video, 2005) 

Frank Sinatra as heroin addict Frankie Machine in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) - United Artists

Less Than Zero (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1987)

Andrew McCarthy plays Clay Easton, a college frosh who returns home to Los Angeles for the Christmas holidays. Here he encounters his ex-gal pal Blair (Jami Gertz) who has hooked up with his old high school buddy and cocaine junkie Julian Wells (Robert Downey Jr.). Julian, along with Jami, are underwater in drugs, with the former owing $50,000 to dealer Rip (James Spader). Blow, crack cocaine, speed and heroin are the drugs of choice in this film, which ends tragically when Julian dies of an overdose as the trio flee L.A. Robert Downey Jr., who battled a real-life drug addiction, turns in a gripping performance as a cocaine junkie truly down and out in Beverly Hills.  

Great line (to Robert Downey Jr.): " I don't wanna trust you, Julian, I just want my 50K, all right?" - James Spader as Rip

Director: Marek Kanievska

On DVD: Less Than Zero (20th Century Fox, 2002)

The French Connection (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1971)

Gene Hackman stars as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, a New York City cop out to bust the fabled French Connection international drug ring. Roy Scheider plays Hackman's partner Buddy Russo, with Fernando Rey as the French drug kingpin Alain Charnier and Tony Lo Bianco as the traitorous Salvatore "Sal" Boca. This is the 1970s cinema at its best, featuring an intelligent, relentless storyline populated by gritty characters and one of the all-time greatest car chase sequences. One of the more memorable scenes takes place in a police garage, where the cops are disassembling a car looking for a hidden fortune in drugs. It's there, but they just can't seem to find it. The movie won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman) and Best Screenplay.

Great line (to the chemist who has just analyzed a heroin shipment): "And by the time it gets down to nickel bags, it will be worth at least thirty-two million." - Tony Lo Bianco as Sal Boca 

Director: William Friedkin 

On DVD: The French Connection (Twentieth Century Fox, 2005)

Gene Hackman as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection (1971) - Twentieth Century-Fox

Scarface (Universal, 1983)

Al Pacino goes way over the top as Cuban immigrant Tony Montana, the ruthless head of a drug cartel who shoots his way to the big time in drug-infested Miami of the 1980s. Pacino's performance is raw, obscene and unnerving, with Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Robert Loggia in strong support. Get ready for the f-bomb in this picture, which is uttered 226 times, along with plenty of automatic fire, flying lead, hot cocaine and a body count of 42. Al Pacino copped a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor.  

Great line: "In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women." - Al Pacino as Tony Montana 

Director: Brian De Palma

On DVD: Scarface Platinum Edition (Universal, 2006)

New Jack City (Warner Bros., 1991)

When crack cocaine is introduced to New York City Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his Cash Money Brothers gang are there, raking in the illicit drug profits. Out to bust Nino and his brothers are NYPD undercover officers Scotty Appleton (Ice-T) and Nick Peretti (Judd Nelson), who recruit small-time stick-up artist Pookie (Chris Rock) to gather inside information on their operation. New Jack City is a tough, gritty film with the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early '90s serving as the focal point. Wesley Snipes won an NAACP Image award for his riveting portrayal of the amoral drug dealer.

Great line: " I'm not guilty. You're the one that's guilty. The lawmakers, the politicians, the Colombian drug lords, all you who lobby against making drugs legal. Just like you did with alcohol during the prohibition. You're the one who's guilty. I mean, c'mon, let's kick the ballistics here: Ain't no Uzi's made in Harlem. Not one of us in here owns a poppy field. This thing is bigger than Nino Brown. This is big business. This is the American way." - Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown

Director: Mario Van Peebles

On DVD: New Jack City Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner, 2005)

Wesley Snipes as drug dealer Nino Brown in New Jack City (1991) - Warner Bros.

Easy Rider (Columbia, 1969)

Illegal drugs kick off this classic biker road movie from the Woodstock era when Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) score a lucrative cocaine deal with their connection (Phil Spector) in Los Angeles. The pot-smoking duo then hit the road, picking up alcoholic lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), who is later murdered by a band of southern rednecks. The pair continue to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, where they engage in an LSD trip while frolicking with prostitutes (Karen Black, Toni Basil) at a Big Easy brothel. Heard on the film's classic rock soundtrack is "The Pusher," Hoyt Axton's memorable song of drug woes, as performed by John Kay and Steppenwolf. Both Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were stoned and/or drunk during most of filming, with the pair (along with Jack Nicholson) smoking real marijuana for their camping scene.  

Great line (on seeing his first marijuana joint): "Lord have mercy! Is that what that is?" - Jack Nicholson as George Hanson

 Director: Dennis Hopper

On DVD: Easy Rider Special Edition (Columbia Tristar, 2002)

Midnight Express (Columbia, 1978)

Based on a true story, Midnight Express stars Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, a young American who is busted for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. Hayes is tossed into a brutal Istanbul prison where he plans his escape. The scene at the airport where Hayes is searched is white-knuckle intense, with the Turkish soldiers eventually finding the hashish strapped to his body. "When you get busted over there, you're in for the hassle of your life," an official U.S. government TV commercial later warned its citizens traveling abroad. Yeah, just ask Billy Hayes.

Great line: "What is a crime? What is punishment? It seems to vary from time to time and place to place. What's legal today is suddenly illegal tomorrow because society says it's so, and what's illegal yesterday is suddenly legal because everybody's doin' it, and you can't put everybody in jail. I'm not saying this is right or wrong. I'm just saying that's the way it is. But I've spent 3 1/2 years of my life in your prison, and I think I've paid for my error, and if it's your decision today to sentence me to more years..." - Brad Davis as Billy Hayes

Director: Alan Parker

On DVD: Midnight Express (Sony, 2008)

Reefer Madness (Motion Picture Ventures, 1936)

No best drug movie list would be complete without the camp/exploitation movie classic Reefer Madness. Originally financed by a religious group and titled Tell Your Children, this cautionary tale grossly overhyped the dangers of marijuana use, with its practitioners taking a mere toke and instantly turning into homicidal/suicidal sex fiends. Reefer Madness, cast with unknowns Dorothy Short, Kenneth Craig, Lillian Miles and Dave O'Brien in the starring roles, was rediscovered in the 1970s where it became a big hit on college campuses. Pack plenty of munchies when viewing this Depression Era novelty, but remember to save room for the unintentional laughs.

Great line (to a suspected marijuana user): "I'm going to ask you a straightforward question: isn't it true that you have, perhaps unwillingly, acquired a certain habit through association with certain undesirable people?" - Jospeh Forte as Dr. Carroll

Director: Louis J. Gasnier

On DVD: Reefer Madness (Legend Films, 2008)

Reefer Madness (1936) movie poster - Heritage Auction Galleries

Ten More Drug Movie Classics

  • Trainspotting (1996)
  • Monkey on My Back (1957)
  • The Trip (1967)
  • Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
  • Woodstock (1970)
  • The Basketball Diaries (1995)
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
  • Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke (1978)
  • Boogie Nights (1997)
  • Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Top Image & Further Reading

Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved.


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