Who doesn’t love a good gangster movie? Glamour and unrelenting violence. Letting ourselves escape the rules of the world for a few hours and imagine what it would be like to live beyond the norms of society. We empathise with the men and women who are willing to do whatever it takes to survive in their brutal world.
As well as offering thrills and mysteries to solve, gangster movies prove to be some of the best period flicks available for offering a glimpse into worlds that most of use don’t get to see. And we aren’t just talking about London’s criminal underworld. The movies on this list can transport us to the violent favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to 1920s Barcelona, 1970s Korea, and Mexican prisons of the 1970s and 1980s.
IMDB Score 6.3/10
This Mexican crime film is a new spin on the prisoners form a sports team theme that rises its head every few years (Mean Machine, The Longest Yard). In this version a juvenile Zambrano (played well by Adrian Ladron) wants to join the prison team, but in order to do this he must involve himself with organised crime as the team also controls services and privileges in prison, and supports crime on the outside. Based on real events, it offers a raw look at life in Mexican prisons in the 1970s and 1980s.
IMDB Score 5.1/10
Called St George’s Day for its British release, this British gangster flick follows infamous cousins Micky Mannock (Frank Harper) and Ray Collishaw (Craig Fairbrass) who are at the top of London’s underworld food chain. Their position is threatened, and in order to maintain their position they need to run a dangerous heist in Berlin. They execute their scheme under the cover of the big England-Germany football game on St George’s Day. While the film can be a bit formulaic, its fast pace will keep you watching to the end.
IMDB Score 6.5/10
Directed by Guillaume Canet, this is a remake of the 2008 French thriller Les liens du sang starring an all-star cast including Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard and Mila Kunis. Owen’s character Chris is released from prison after serving 12 years for killing a rapist and tries to rebuild his life, but events conspire to throw him back into the criminal world. This throws Chris’ family into chaos as his brother Frank (Crudup) is a New York City cop. As well as suspense, this film does a great job of recreating 1970s New York.
IMDB Score 7.1/10
Also released under the title Kill the Irishman, this film follows the rise and fall of Danny Greene, a Cleveland dockworker who was convicted for embezzlement when he was the president of the International Longshoremen’s Association in the 1960s. His conviction pushes him deeper into Cleveland’s criminal underworld, and he eventually wages war with the Mafia for control of the city. Ray Stevenson makes the leading character relatable and he is supported by a strong cast including Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, and the always perfect Christopher Walken.
IMDB Score 8.6/10
This Brazilian crim drama is an adaption of the 1997 novel of Paulo Lins and follows the growth of organised crime in the Cidade de Deus, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, between the 1960s and the 1980s. The film stars a superb Brazilian cast (watch out for Douglas Silva), most of whom were once residents of the neighbourhood or other of the city’s favelas. This movie tells a compelling story of how circumstances shape us, and offers a glimpse of what life was like in Rio’s infamous favelas.
IMDB Score 6.1/10
This South Korean crim film follows Lee Doo-sam (played by Woo Min-ho), who rose from small-time narcotics dealer to drug lord of Korea in the 1970s. Based on a true story, this film is relentlessly violent, which will either appeal or distract. Lee Soo-sam’s double life adds a layer of intrigue to the story, it can be a little derivative. But, like a number of movie’s on the list, the realistic setting in a world that few of us will ever get to see makes it unmissable viewing.
IMDb Score 6/10
If you are a Mark Wahlberg fan, this movie should be on your list. It is also an introduction to the talents of Brie Larson, who is currently donning the suit of Captain Marvel. Based on the 1974 film of the same name, this remake focuses on Jim Bennett (Wahlberg), a literature professor and gambling addict. When debts put his life at risk, he convinces some of his athlete students to throw their games in order to win big while betting. This naturally just leads to more trouble.
IMDB Score 6.3/10
This Spanish thriller is another period piece, set in 1921 Barcelona. When a military train is robbed, the police must try to trac down who is responsible. They resort to the most brutal methods, which makes it hard to distinguish them from the gangsters that they pursue. Soon war breaks out between the police and a group of radical anarchists, and the city itself is the collateral damage. Spectacularly filmed, the excellent setting offers a fresh take on a classic story.
IMDB Score 4.2/10
London, the setting for many of the best gangster movies. Here we see Dylan Duffus playing an undercover cop who becomes too invested in his new gang life and starts to like the idea of being one of the bad guys. When the gang’s leader starts making moves to grow his power in the criminal underworld, Duffus’ character must decide where his loyalties lie. While the story may seem familiar, the narrative has a life of its own and is definitely worth adding to your watch list.
IMDB Score 7/10
Tom Hardy playing two characters in the same film, need we say more? This film from director Brian Helgeland follows the career of the infamous Kray Twins in 1960s London. An ex-boxer and an ex-psychiatric patient, the Kray twins are willing to use whatever brutal violence necessary to secure their place in London’s underground world. While this might not be the perfect gangster flick, as a showcase of Tom Hardy’s talents it is riveting.
IMDb Score 5.4/10
A Netflix original film, this is more of a neo-noir science fiction film than a gangster movie, but in terms of mystery, thrills and violence, it ticks all the boxes. Staring Alexander Skarsgard as a mute bartender in 2035 Berlin who is trying to unravel the mystery of what has happened to the woman he loves. The film is visually enticing and creates an interesting future world, and the always charismatic Skarsgard is supported by some good performances from Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux.
IMDB Score 6.2/10
Yet another British entry on the list, this movie stars Ewan McGregor, a poetics lecture on holiday in Russia in order to try and save his marriage who strikes up a friendship with Dima, a boisterous Russian, who ends up giving him a USB stick that links corrupt British politicians to the Russian mafia. McGregor’s character gives the information to MI6, embroiling him in the world of espionage. McGregor turns in a strong performance, and Stellan Skarsgard and Damian Lewis also give stand out performances.
IMDB Score 6.3/10
Starring Jared Leto, this Japanese-American film directed by Martin Zandvliet follows an American who becomes embroiled with the Japanese yakuza in the 1950s. Starting out as the only non-Japanese inmate in an Osaka prison, Leto’s character Nick Lowell saves the life of a Yakuza, which sees the Yakuza arrange his release. Nick then finds himself embroiled in Yakuza business, and outrunning his own shady past that slowly reveals itself over the course of the film. This flick has lots of twists to keep you guessing.
IMDB Score 8.9/10
If you haven’t already seen Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the question is, what have you been doing since 1994? This is the film that introduced us to Uma Thurman, relaunched John Travolta’s career and gave Samuel L. Jackson his hard man credentials. Several stories moulded into one, Pulp Fiction offers violence, humour, and is one of those movies that is a shared part of our culture. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. If you have seen it, you know why it is worth watching again.
IMDB Score 7.1/10
This film starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Tori and Josh Brolin follows an FBI agent tasked with bringing down a brutal Mexican drug cartel. Blunt’s character is the heart of the film as she sees things people should ever had to see, but also learns that things aren’t black and white, and that knowing who to trust is a challenge. She is perfectly complemented by del Toro, who lurks through the movie and keeps you guessing. This flick was nominated for three academy awards, and is well worth the two hours.