There is no denying that when it comes to great gangster movies, all we need to do is stick Robert De Nero and Ali Pacino on and we’re guaranteed an amazing film. Great gangster films don’t just require A list actors. They also require authenticity and dimensional characters. With so many movies to pick from, after hours and hours of viewing, we’ve finally agreed upon the top 20 gangster movies ever made.
20. The Untouchables
The Untouchables is a 1987 movie by Brian De Palma starring Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith and Robert De Niro. In the 1930s, when alcohol was banned in the US, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) made his fortune selling bootleg booze. It takes four dedicated officers to bring Al Capone down for tax evasion, resulting in an eleven year prison sentence. Superb performances, lots of action and deeply satisfying viewing. One of our favourites.
19. Reservoir Dogs
Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed Reservoir Dogs which hit the screens in 1992. Best described as an American heist film, it involves six strangers that are recruited to carry out a robbery. The robbery goes drastically wrong when it’s ambushed by the police, leaving the remaining gang members to figure out who the traitor in their midst is. It is bloody, violent and unrelenting. But a must see by all means.
18. Layer Cake
A British film based in London, Layer Cake portrays a low-key cocaine dealer who wants an exit from the criminal underworld. Before he goes, he’s given a couple of assignments which involve kidnapping and the brokering a large shipment of pills. Featuring iconic gangster violence and a few clever twists, this double-crossing thriller is both sleek and stylish.
When it comes to a good cop and robber movie, then there’s only one of note and that’s Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Directed by Michael Mann, Heat was an instant hit in 1995, grossing $187 million dollars worldwide. De Niro plays a robber that will stop at nothing to get what he wants and it’s up to an LAPD homicide detective (Al Pacino) to stop him. Heat has made a top spot on our list as it offers nonstop, edge-of-your-seat action throughout and a great story line.
16. Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino is well known for his twists and sudden, unexpected scene changes. And that’s what we love about him. Pulp Fiction is not your standard kind of gangster movie. It portrays several different crime stories across LA and with a dream cast to support (John Travolta, Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis). Hitting our screens in 1994, the movie’s title refers to popular pulp magazines and crime novels known for their animated dialogue and violence. Despite it being almost 25 years old, we still find this film stylish, playful and creative. And it’s got a great soundtrack.
15. Eastern Promises
David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises hits the spot on our list. It tells the story of midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), who protects the baby of a 14 year old drug addict who died in childbirth. Anna uncovers the tragic background of the baby’s mother and finds she was lured in to sex work by Russian gangsters in London. It offers a brutal and menacing dip in to the criminal Russian underworld. It may be missing a bit of tension here and there but definitely still worth a watch.
14. A Bronx Tale
A Bronx Tale is a crime drama that tells the story of Calogero Anello who battles conflicts of wanting to live the values of his hardworking and honest father whilst being tempted by the world of organised crime. Starring Robert De Niro and Chazz Palminteri, it portrays a mob film with a more emotional take – a powerful and charming coming-of-age story. It feels quite ‘under-budget’ in some areas, however, we mustn’t forget that this is a film of the early 90s. Great performances and well deserving of a spot our list.
13. Once Upon a Time in America
This is a 1984 crime drama starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. Told in a series of flashbacks, the storyline follows “Noodles” through growing up as the tough kid on the block in a Jewish neighbourhood to his rise as Mafia boss. It’s almost two and a half hours long, but don’t let that put you off. Everything about this film is outstanding including the cinematography, soundtrack and acting. You’ll find mixed reviews about this one, but we think it’s well worth a watch.
Tom Hardy’s performance in Legend is mind blowing. Playing the part of both brothers, Hardy portrays the story of Ron and Reggie Kray who control areas of the criminal underworld in London’s East End. It’s a rather violent 1960’s crime drama, documenting the rise and fall of the notorious London gangsters (imprisoned in 1969). You’ll find mixed reviews if you look this one up with many commenting that there isn’t much going for it apart from Tom Hardy. However, we find the storyline clever with many of the scenes thrilling.
Say hello to Scarface. Released in 1983, it’s a remake of the original that came out in 1932. For many, this movie is one of their all time gangster movies with many reporting that they favour it over The Godfather. It’s the story of a fearless Cuban refugee, Tony Montana, (played by no other than Al Pacino) who had big dreams of success. Tony claims his way to the top to become rich and powerful with his cocaine dealings. It’s politics, action, crime and drama rolled in to one.
10. Carlito’s Way
Puerto Rican Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) wants to leave the criminal underworld and go on the straight and narrow. However, he finds it increasingly difficult to escape and involved in the same activities that got him in to bother in the first place. It’s fair to say this wasn’t received well at the box office in 1993 however, it’s subsequently developed into somewhat of a criminal cult film. It’s a fine performance by Pacino, beautifully shot and highly compelling.
9. Donnie Brasco
When we think of gangster movies, Donnie Brasco might not be the first thing that comes to mind. It’s based on a true story of an undercover agent who infiltrates a Mafia family in the 1970s. One of the main themes of this film is relationships and the impact that people have on each other. It offers a superb script however, we’re afraid to say, little excitement along the way. We think it’s quite stylish and it certainly has an air of sophistication about it. But it lacks in suspense and surprise. Mind, it’s still worth a watch if you’re going off it’s box office success ($124.9million against a $35million budget).
Brother’s definitely made the list. Not many people know about this film. It’s probably one you’ve never seen. Starring Takeshi Kitano as Yamamoto (Kitano also wrote and directed it), this Yakuza’s clan is defeated which leads to him escaping to L.A with his associate Kato. Yamamoto and his new buddies emerge as a powerful force, so much so that they take on the Italian Mafia. It is an excellent film, gripping and thrilling throughout. If you can get your hands on it, it’s definitely worth a watch.
7. American Gangster
Made by Ridley Scott, American Gangster stars Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Washington plays the part of Frank Lucas who is a notorious African American who imported heroin into the US during the 70s. Lucas makes over $300 million dollars and is eventually brought down by a detective (Russell Crowe). It offers flawless performances (they’re a great duo), interesting characters and solid gangster viewing. Well worthy of a spot on our list.
6. Road To Perdition
This is a powerful American crime film directed by Sam Mendes. It was quite a surprise to see Tom Hanks in a gangster film, however, he didn’t disappoint. Mike Sullivan, played by Hanks, is an enforcer for mobster John Rooney. Rooney’s son, Connor, becomes jealous of the bond between them and murders Sullivan’s wife and son. Sullivan escapes with his older son, Michael and embarks on a powerful journey of sin and redemption. Quite a different take on a crime and gangster thriller and that’s why it’s made our list.
5. The Departed
The Departed is a remake of Internal Affairs, a Hong Kong film released in 2002. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon, the storyline features an Irish mob boss planting a mole within the state police. At the same time, the state police assign one of their own to infiltrate the mob. This is no regular crime thriller. It is a sensational mix of violence, betrayal and murder. The film won four oscars and several other awards.
4. The Godfather II
Starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, The Godfather 2 is both a sequel and prequel to The Godfather. One storyline follows the 1958 story of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) who fiercely protects his family business after there’s an attempt to have him murdered. The other prequels the journey of his father (De Niro) from his childhood in Sicily to him establishing his family in NYC. Featuring outstanding performances by the principal actors, part 2 is considered a movie masterpiece. Some would even argue that it trumps the first in terms of it’s ambition, style and energy. We’re not sure about that. But we know it scores highly on our list.
Casino stars Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci. It’s common knowledge that Las Vegas was founded and built by gangsters and Casino tells the story of the last casino run by the mafia. It captures the lifestyles of the rich and famous, violence, ambition and, ultimately, the mob’s decline from power. Not as flawless as some of the other movies on our list, but in every other sense it’s good viewing.
2. The Godfather I
The legendary Godfather is a 1972 crime movie based on a best selling novel by writer Mario Puzo. It is one of the greatest gangster films of all time. The fact that it is loosely based on true events makes the storyline even more thrilling. Starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino as the head of a New York crime family, the film portrays the story of the family under Don Vito Corleone (a.k.a The Godfather). It is truly in a league of its own.
It’s one of our favourite gangster films ever made. Goodfellas portrays the story of Henry Hill, a young boy who becomes involved in the criminal underworld in his neighborhood. Henry works his way up to more serious crimes after acting as a fence for “Jimmy the Gent” Conway. Based on true events, we observe Henry and his tumultuous life. Ultimately, this all leads to the fall of Henry and him enrolling on the witness protection program in return for providing testimony against some of the gang members. The end credits reference that Henry is still in the witness protection program. This classic tale of moblife in the city offers a vivid insight. Well worth a watch.