10 Films We See in the Grand Theft Auto Games

From 'Smokin' Aces' to 'Taxi Diver' to 'Heat' — we see traces of their DNA in our favorite open-world game series

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Rockstar Games

Last week, the latest installment in expansive and crime-ridden world of Grand Theft Auto went on sale. In just three days, the critically-acclaimed Grand Theft Auto V became the fastest-selling entertainment property to date, raking in over a billion dollars for GTA publisher Rockstar Games.

So, unless you get queasy towards unnecessary violence, prefer Wii Fitness over third-person action shooters, or want to wait for this fall’s shipment of next-gen consoles — your fidgety thumbs have likely already developed calluses stealing cars, pulling off heists, and generally engaging in all manners of felonious behavior.

Just remember it’s okay to take a break. You don’t have to press pause and lose that sweaty adrenaline rush you’ve spent hours working up. Grab an energy drink. Do some jumping jacks. Or take in one of these movies that we think might have influenced any number of designers and art directors who’ve worked on the venerable game series, from the top-down thrills of the first installment (1997’s Grand Theft Auto ) to the gorgeously rendered sun-dappled menace of San Andreas of GTA V.


10. Smokin’ Aces (2007)

Director: Joe Carnahan

This 2007 flop revolves around a coked up Las Vegas magician-turned-informant (Jeremy Piven), who’s the prized target of twisted FBI agents, stereotypical henchmen, and a motley rolodex of thugs, punks, and sleazeballs. Green Lantern star Ryan Reynolds is the only thing that stands in their way. Yeah, it’s an afternoon rental at best.

So, GTA? The film’s 109 minutes of drugs, gunfights, tongue-in-cheek violence, and allotment of Ray Liotta should recall the best of Grand Theft Auto’s 3D era, specifically the insane missions in 2001’s GTA III and its 2002 counterpart, Vice City.

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9. Thief (1981)

Director: Michael Mann

The acclaimed director’s oft-forgotten big-screen directorial debut centers on a veteran safecracker (James Caan) who connects with the right job for the wrong people. Jim Belushi tags along as his blue-collar sidekick, blending in well with Chicago’s rugged ‘80s scenery.

So, GTA? The archetype of GTA V’s Michael character is seemingly carved out in the School of Mann. His unsettling temper and initial hesitations at returning to crime mirror the swagger and poise of Caan. Wait ‘til you see the final shootout.

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8. Carlito’s Way (1993)

Director: Brian De Palma

De Palma and Al Pacino’s 1993 reunion shares a number of visual motifs with its 1983 “predecessor,” Scarface. If only Tony Montana staved off the coke, moved up to New York City, and attempted to shrug off his past glory. The whole bit about his adversaries trying to kill him doesn’t change, though.

So, GTA? A weasel of a lawyer, a prison escape gone ugly, and one climactic chase scene later might fool you into thinking you’re still holding the controller circa 2002. More specifically, GTA’s recurring Ken Rosenberg character is a direct parody of Sean Penn’s irritating David Kleinfield.

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7. Miami Vice – “Brother’s Keeper” (1984)

Director: Michael Mann

So, it’s not exactly a film, but the nearly two-hour series pilot certainly feels like one. Fast cars, sexy skylines, and witty dialogue ease the underlying tension that makes up Miami’s sordid, drug-filled landscape as local undercover detective Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) befriends visiting New York City detective, Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas).

So, GTA? Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is one long homage to the series; from the name, to the inclusion of Michael Thomas as Ricardo Diaz, to its many Easter eggs littered throughout. Even now, the way GTA integrates its popular soundtracks owes everything to the trademark style of Miami Vice.

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6. Snatch (2000)

Director: Guy Ritchie

Ritchie’s 2000 tour de force collects a rotating cast of quirky players and tosses them into London’s criminal underbelly, involving a diamond heist, one shady boxing promoter, and enough native slang to have Americans reaching for the rewind button. It’s a parody of events that’s at times confusing and yet rather charming, thanks to Brad Pitt’s questionable disposition and the late Dennis Farina’s cynical histrionics.

So, GTA? The film’s playful nature and vivid characters juggle the humor and sensationalism without sacrificing its overall shock value — more or less a characteristic of GTA. 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV directly pays homage with the eerily similar mission, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. The game’s jumbled storylines are no coincidence, either.

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5. Taxi Driver (1976)

Director: Martin Scorcese

Sex and violence stained New York’s city streets decades before Giuliani and Bloomberg brought out the mops and buckets. In 1976, Scorcese lensed this to perfection by charting the instability of one cabbie named Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). In an almost episodic format, De Niro eviscerates the corpses of any anti-heroes before or after him, creating a questionable protagonist viewers can’t help but pat on the shoulder — and urge on.

So, GTA? The film’s premise — a psychopath who drives around a big city, thinks all citizens and politicians are filth, and gets involved in a bloody shootout — is basically the five-second pitch for video game. In fact, the original 1997 2D game offered the choice of a mohawk-sporting character named Travis — and 2005’s Liberty City Stories featured a hidden taxi cab named Bickle ‘76.

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4. Menace II Society (1993)

Directors: Albert and Allen Hughes

The Hughes brothers had size 15 shoes to fill after John Singleton’s 1991 ghetto masterpiece Boyz ‘N the Hood nabbed an Academy Award nomination and made Compton synonymous with urban violence. Yet what separates Menace II Society from Boyz is the film’s unforgiving consequences for its gangster protagonists: Singleton offered an alleyway out of the ghetto, while the Hughes brothers insisted there is no escape.

So, GTA? Fans of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and its next-gen makeover GTA V will find plenty of ties in Menace. The former’s Grove Street Family and the latter’s Lamar sidekick echo the irrational mindset of Larenz Tate’s Kevin “O-Dog” Anderson character. Both also pivot their stories on the film’s conclusion that crime isn’t so much a choice but a given.

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3. Scarface (1983)

Director: Brian De Palma

The shortest three-hour film to ever hit cinemas, De Palma’s sweeping remake of Howard Hawks’s 1932 film has everything any rise-to-glory gangster story needs: deception, violence, consequences, and excess. Tony Montana (Pacino) is a teddy bear of a villain, who’s too angry to fear, too charming to hate. How minutes eek by and murders lose meaning only speaks volumes to our strange ability to get desensitized.

So, GTA? Since its 3D renovation in 2001, the GTA series has continued to capitalize on this rags to riches storyline. GTA III whispered of this influence, while its followup Vice City went full nelson, remaking sets (Montana’s mansion and go-to nightclub) and scenarios (a bloody bathroom and a chainsaw; the film’s climactic shootout) straight from the 1983 epic.

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2. Goodfellas (1990)

Director: Martin Scorcese

The based-on-fact story of Henry Hill’s rise and fall with the Lucchese crime family is captured in the only mob movie that can be spoken in the same breath with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Even 23 years later, the  intensity of Liotta, De Niro, or Joe Pesci sends tears to the eyes. Scorcese crafted a timeless masterpiece that highlighted how mobsters speak, the way hierarchies  in mob families are formed, and why deception leads to sad goodbyes. It’s also got a killer soundtrack, no pun intended.

So, GTA? The dense mob setting of GTA III rips elements straight out of the 1990 picture — from the violent beatdowns to the way various characters are “offed.” Hill’s long-running goal of “being made” is shared by the game’s Claude protagonist, in addition to several other players in the game’s follow ups. It also speaks for Liotta’s inclusion in Vice City.

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1. Heat (1995)

Director: Michael Mann

Mann’s third entry on this list pits a seasoned thief (De Niro) against a decorated detective (Pacino) and studies the similarities and sacrifices of their profession. Clocking in at 170 minutes, the director takes his time absorbing even the most minor on-screen character, never losing the tension that’s wired to the core. Emotional, harrowing, timeless, and mature — Heat remains one of the greatest crime stories and an exceptional piece of modern filmmaking.

So, GTA? The film’s influence is paramount to the game series. The expansive world of Los Angeles, the sprawling shootouts, the intricate missions, and its accompanying stakeouts have all become hallmarks of GTA. GTA IV took a literal approach with its violent bank heist mission, “Three Leaf Clover”, which utilized the film’s same suits, weapons, bags of cash, and ensuing consequences. The gratuitously evolving world of Grand Theft Auto V’s San Andreas, which is essentially Los Angeles, should no doubt stir up flashbacks to Mann’s work here.

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