In the Hollywood Zeitgeist, every drug lord is a ruthless monster presiding over a swath of territory. He has a group of machine-gun-toting Che Guevara look alikes at his disposal and dispatches his enemies with cunning creativity. Never mind if the reality of the drug biz is much more grim: the version Hollywood shows us is too much fun. So who are these charismatic, murderous, and sometimes hilarious kings of the drug game? Glad you asked!
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), American Gangster
Based on a real-life heroin kingpin of Harlem, Lucas is one seriously bad dude — a fact about which American Gangster never leaves any doubt. The movie opens with Lucas murdering one of his rivals in cold blood. As he takes over Harlem and the heroin trade, Lucas takes no prisoners, surpassing young, flashy gangbangers to succeed his mentor, Bumpy Johnson, and rise to the top of his trade. Don’t let the fact that you like Denzel Washington fool you: Lucas is one stone-cold killer.
Frank White (Christopher Walken), King of New York
A drug lord with a conscience? A drug lord with a sense of remorse? A drug lord who really just wants to do some good? That’s Frank White for you. Instead of raking in huge profits off dope sales, White channels his considerable talents for murder, corruption, and destruction toward the funding of a hospital in a poor New York City neighborhood. He even kills a variety of fellow gangsters whose business practices he doesn’t approve of. So he sort of sees the error of his ways. Sort of.
Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes), New Jack City
The leader of the hilariously named New York City drug gang Cash Money Brothers, Nino converts a group of apartments into a giant crack den and jealously guards his empire from internal and external foes alike. Nobody is safe from Brown: he even kills his own little brother and right-hand man, Gee Money (Allen Payne), after undercover cops slip him dubious information. He’s pretty savvy too, evading the life sentence most drug kingpins get by turning state’s evidence and fingering another member of his crew.
Pablo Escobar (Cliff Curtis), Blow
Escobar is, in reality, the world’s most famous real drug lord. He’s notorious for a variety of crimes, including a whole lot of murder. So you’d think a movie like Blow could go without demonstrating just how dangerous Escobar is. Oh, no. The first, and pretty much only, time we see Pablo in Blow, his goons are executing a guy who messed with his operation. Escobar tells Johnny Depp that the man came willingly, because otherwise Escboar would have killed his entire family. Message sent, message received.
Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), Starsky & Hutch
If White proves a drug lord can be reformed, then Feldman proves a drug lord can be funny — and Jewish. Yes, Feldman — the nemesis of the titular seventies cops — is the only drug dealer who will ensure your cocaine is pure and kosher. He’s a pretty savvy operator who sells his drugs by putting them in the trunks of cars slated for charity auction. Sure, he gets his comeuppance from Starsky and Hutch, but that doesn’t make Vaughn’s shtick or his magical mustache any less hilarious.
Samson (Clarence Williams III), Half Baked
Another funny drug lord? Samson, a wheelchair-bound street pharmacist, becomes the nemesis of Dave Chappelle’s unlikely band of pot dealers after their medical-grade marijuana steals Samson’s business. But Samson deals more than pot, plus he has a loyal army of female ninjas at his disposal, giving him quite the advantage over the lovable stoners. A master of deception, Samson is full of surprises, like the fact that he doesn’t even need that wheelchair!
Ted Jones (Gary Cole), Pineapple Express
Jones isn’t quite as hilarious as Feldman or Samson, but he’s not exactly Escobar, either. For starters, he’s played by Cole (Bill Lumberg in 1999’s Office Space). On the other hand, he really is a badass. Jones desperately wants to kill Seth Rogan and James Franco and doesn’t care how many people get in his way. Thanks to Jones and his thirst for revenge, this raunchy comedy actually boasts a pretty substantial body count.
Tony Montana (Al Pacino) Scarface
Montana is the be-all and end-all of badass drug lords in the movies. The guy’s name is synonymous with hubris and wanton destruction, his level of brutality and contempt for the norms of human society legendary. Tony kills, tortures, fights off dozens of assassins and buries his face into massive piles of cocaine. The moral of the story (aside from the hubris thing) is that you just don’t mess with him under any circumstances — unless you want to say hello to his little friend.
Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), The Godfather
Sollozzo does what nobody else can: he nearly takes down the Corleone crime family. He kills Corleone’s top assassin, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), and almost takes out the don (Marlon Brando) himself. The Turk is “good with a knife,” so you don’t want to mess with him one-on-one. And as the leading drug man in The Godfather, he doesn’t take no for an answer: when Corleone refuses his request to go into business together, his response is all-out war. Temper, temper!