Guns, girls, and gangs—such is the life of the gangster. And betrayals, manhunts, robberies, sacrifices, drugs, and weapons... these tropes make up much of the gangster film subgenre.
Recent successes like The Outfit and Peaky Blinders show us that gangsters are still as popular as ever in movies and television. We can't get enough of murderous anti-heroes, apparently!
That said, gangster movies have been around for ages, ever since the surprise hit of Josef von Sternberg's film Underworld in 1927, which is generally accepted as the first-ever gangster film.
Here are my picks for the best movies about gangs and gangsters, spanning everything from America to Europe to Asia, from 1920s gangsters to modern-day street thugs.
20. The Gentlemen (2019)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Dockery
Action, Comedy, Crime (1h 53m)
When thinking of gangsters, two images might come to mind: the hat-and-trench-coat-wearing cigar smokers of Prohibition, or the tracksuit-wearing weed smokers who flex on the streets.
The Gentlemen presents us gangster types who are somewhere in between. Although Colin Farrell does rock a tartan tracksuit as Coach, most of the other characters wear fine suits and drink whiskey.
They're "gentlemen gangsters," so to speak.
While Coach's students are stupidly making a music video at a crime scene, Ray (Charlie Hunnam) whips out a machine gun to teach some wannabe roadmen gangsters some humility.
Apart from Matthew McConaughey, The Gentlemen prides itself on being distinctively British and distinctively Guy Ritchie.
19. Donnie Brasco (1997)
Directed by Mike Newell
Starring Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen
Biography, Crime, Drama (2h 7m)
Johnny Depp has appeared in several mobster movies—most notably Public Enemies and Black Mass—but his best appearance came alongside Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco.
Many gangster movies take the undercover angle, where officers must convincingly infiltrate a dangerous gang. This keeps us on our toes for every near-miss mistake that could blow their cover.
But this one's even more tense since Donnie Brasco was a real undercover cop who made it into the Mafia during the 1970s, exemplifying the adage of "fake it 'til you make it."
Mike Newell adapted the nonfiction book into a two-hour drama that dodges the usual criminal tropes you might expect.
18. American Gangster (2007)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Biography, Crime, Drama (2h 37m)
Criminal organizations take a lot of, well, organizing. The most successful ones involve tons of people, jobs, bribes, secrets, fights, meetings, rigs, robberies, etc.
In 1968, Frank Lucas decided to cut out the middleman and deal with his heroin source directly—like any true businessman would. After all, Frank Lucas was a real-life corporate guy.
He's played by Denzel Washington in Ridley Scott's American Gangster, going up against detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).
While most of Harlem takes Lucas at face value when he fronts as a businessman striking connections with politicians, Roberts sees through it and works to bring him down.
Although not entirely accurate (Roberts took issue with Washington's "noble" portrayal of Lucas), American Gangster is a gripping watch thanks to Ridley Scott's expert dramatization.
17. The Long Good Friday (1980)
Directed by John Mackenzie
Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Paul Freeman
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 54m)
Most British crime films feature Cockney gangsters. There's just something about the accent and their want for London domination.
The London setting is crucial in The Long Good Friday, which serves as a backdrop to the politics of the era, all of which is expertly woven throughout the film by director John Mackenzie.
Bob Hoskins is Harold Shand, a gangster trying to go legit. The corruption of cops and politicians help, as he's able to strike deals and make plans to redevelop the London Docklands.
Then, bombs go off. Friends are murdered. Harold has to chuck it all in to find the culprit, and he has to do it all without showing any cracks or blind spots in his growing business.
The watertight plot and Hoskins's "sinister" performance put The Long Good Friday up there with Britain's best gang movies.
16. Eastern Promises (2007)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen, Vincent Cassel
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 40m)
Gangsters are a hard bunch, but Russian gangsters are something else. Eastern Promises depicts the Russian mafia in London as they're approached by Anna (Naomi Watts), despite being warned not to.
After delivering the baby of a 14-year-old prostitute—who dies giving birth—Anna tries to track down the girl's family using her diary. This diary leads her straight to the doorstep of Nikolai Luzhin, whose tattoos and Russian accent speak to his mafia status.
Viggo Mortensen gives a chilling performance as the violent, man-of-few-words mobster, made all the more real by his study of Russian gangs and symbology before filming.
The psychological aspect of Eastern Promises is what differentiates it from most action-based crime flicks. David Cronenberg directs this brooding drama that isn't afraid to outsmart its viewers.
15. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran
Action, Comedy, Crime (1h 47m)
Circling back to Guy Ritchie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels puts the comedy in crime via Ritchie's usual style of dark humor.
Although Ritchie's Snatch is more well-known for its tapestry of criminal plotlines and characters, everything that made Snatch great can first be found in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Ritchie laid the foundations for his trademark collaborations, criminal themes, fast-paced filming, and British slang/humor (where everyone seems to have a nickname) in his feature debut.
Of these collaborations, Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham, Jason Flemyng, and Alan Ford all appear in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Sting is also in there, somewhere.
This one isn't just a gangster movie—it's also a heist movie! And it's all awash in themes of masculinity, patriotism, power, loyalty, and revenge, presented with a rough-and-tumble sheen.
14. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen
Crime, Thriller (1h 39m)
An independent cult neo-noir? That might sound like one for the cinephiles, but Reservoir Dogs seems to be popular with everyone. Quentin Tarantino's feature debut was a hit—to say the least—and it only got more popular after the release of Pulp Fiction.
Gangsters love nicknames, but these guys take it to another level by adopting secret color aliases: Mr. Brown, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange, and Mr. Pink.
Reservoir Dogs depicts a gang trying to pull off a heist that inevitably goes wrong, but soundtrack dissonance, deadpan jokes, trivial conversations, and a Mexican standoff set Reservoir Dogs apart as one of the most unique crime movies in the genre.
Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen make their first of several Tarantino movie appearances, alongside the director himself as Mr. Brown.
13. Casino (1995)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci
Crime, Drama (2h 58m)
If there's one person to rule the gangster genre, it's Robert De Niro—usually under the direction of Martin Scorsese.
The acclaimed director grew up in Little Italy of New York City back during the Mafia's "golden age," so he witnessed the gangster lifestyle first-hand, albeit from a distance.
You'll notice that Martin Scorsese's mobster movies often go beyond gang warfare and into family dynamics, friendship, culture, loyalty, guilt, and religion (specifically Catholicism).
That's what makes them so great—alongside strong casts and dynamic camerawork—and it's a direct result of his childhood observations.
Scorsese's first gangster flick Mean Streets marked the dawn of New Hollywood's greatest crime duo: De Niro and Scorsese. They got together with Joe Pesci for Casino, and later again for The Irishman.
The Chicago Outfit is a huge Italian-American crime syndicate (formerly led by Al Capone) that, in Casino, asks a gambling expert to oversee a casino in Las Vegas. Although he starts off doubling profits, working under the Mafia's eye proves a difficult task.
11. Get Carter (1971)
Directed by Mike Hodges
Starring Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland
Action, Crime, Thriller (1h 52m)
Mike Hodges's directorial debut Get Carter ended up becoming an emblem of 1970s British cinema.
Known for his anti-heroic characters and sarcastic humor, Michael Caine had already established himself as the go-to Cockney casting choice for his work in the infamous caper film The Italian Job.
Caine came on board as another criminal in Get Carter, but this time he was an official London gangster returning to Newcastle to investigate his brother's murder.
Jack Carter isn't a trained detective, but his history in organized crime has sharpened his senses to foul play. And even though he's the protagonist, Carter is a truly terrible person, resulting in a blatantly amoral movie that was praised for its soulless realism.
12. A Prophet (2009)
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup, Adel Bencherif
Crime, Drama (2h 35m)
French cinema has some truly great crime movies, from La Haine to Purple Noon. There's also A Prophet, which takes us off the streets and into prison, where 19-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) is taken in by the Corsican Mafia.
Generally, prison is supposed to rehabilitate inmates and prevent further crime. But in A Prophet, Malik enters as a petty criminal and leaves as a high-ranking assassin.
What else is there to do in prison except learn new skills?
As Malik rises through the ranks to become a respected member of the mob, director Jacques Audiard grabs us from the start and holds us captive with this character-driven prison drama.
10. Tokyo Drifter (1966)
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Starring Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani
Action, Crime (1h 22m)
Leaving the criminal life behind is easier said than done—once you're in the game, you're effectively in it forever.
"Phoenix Tetsu" Hondo didn't ask to quit the game, though. His boss just up and left, leaving Tetsu to wander around Tokyo, ducking rival gangs like a deadly game of dodgeball.
That said, it's a lifestyle he ends up quite attached to.
Seijun Suzuki's yakuza film starring Tetsuya Watari as hitman-turned-vagrant is a bold and poppy crime flick, filmed in crazy camera angles. Looking for an Asian gangster flick? It's one of the best.
Sadly, Suzuki was fired by Nikkatsu not long after releasing Tokyo Drifter. As wild and wonderful as it is, the company had been warning Suzuki to tone down his work for a while—and he refused.
9. The Departed (2006)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
Crime, Drama, Thriller (2h 31m)
Martin Scorsese is one of the few filmmakers who can actually turn a reboot into something better. He did it first with Cape Fear, then again with The Departed many years later.
The critically acclaimed Hong Kong original—titled Infernal Affairs—didn't seem like one that needed an English-language remake. People feared that it would butcher the original's emotional depth.
But Martin Scorsese knows what he's doing. In collaboration with one of his favorites, Leonardo DiCaprio, he went ahead and based The Departed on real corrupt agents and Irish mob bosses.
The Departed takes your standard undercover cop plot and doubles it: while MSP trooper Billy Costigan is trying to infiltrate a Boston gang, the gang's leader has already planted his own spy within the MSP.
The complex plot is brought to life by a star-studded cast that includes Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, and Alec Baldwin.
8. Scarface (1983)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer
Crime, Drama (2h 50m)
Did you know that Brian De Palma's Scarface was actually a semi-remake of the 1932 pre-Code Scarface by Howard Hawks?
Hawks had based his film on Armitage Trail's novel, which in turn was based on the life of Al Capone, who was nicknamed "Scarface."
Brian De Palma took that basic framework and remodeled it into a Hollywood movie. Set in the 1980s, we now have Tony Montana (instead of Al Capone) selling illegal substances and getting charged with tax evasion.
Profanely portrayed by Al Pacino, Tony is a Cuban refugee who starts working for a drug lord in exchange for a green card. The indulgent three-hour runtime is worth it for that grand finale.
7. Gomorrah (2008)
Directed by Matteo Garrone
Starring Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale
Crime, Drama (2h 17m)
How about some Italian gangsters? Not the New York variety—we're talking real mobsters from Italy. The Casalesi clan is a subsection of the Camorra criminal society operating between Naples and Latium.
Roberto Saviano wrote about the Casalesi in his nonfiction book Gomorrah, and his involvement in the film adaptation is partly why Gomorrah is so good!
Gomorrah takes us through the lives of five separate characters affected by gang warfare in Naples. It took six writers to weave it all together: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, and Massimo Gaudioso, alongside Saviano and director Matteo Garrone.
The street rivalries aren't just surface level in this New Italian Epic. Matteo Garrone probes deeper to show the full scale of organized crime, with tendrils that spread low and wide below society.
6. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
Crime, Drama (3h 49m)
Once Upon a Time in America is the third installment in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time" trilogy, which all share similar titles but are otherwise unrelated.
Set in 1918, street kids named Noodles, Patsy, Cockeye, and Dominic are committing petty crimes for a guy called Bugsy. Fifteen years later, they're adults who are practically running Manhattan thanks to bootleg liquor profits during Prohibition.
Although it's now considered among the greatest gangster movies ever made, Once Upon a Time in America was initially met with nonchalance and a distinct lack of Oscar nominations.
If you're a hardcore Robert De Niro fan, there's an Extended Cut that stretches over four hours for your enjoyment. It was originally intended to be two movies, but Leone fused them into one big film—and then Warner Bros. shortened it without Leone's supervision...
5. Boyz N the Hood (1991)
Directed by John Singleton
Starring Cuba Gooding Jr., Laurence Fishburne, Ice Cube
Crime, Drama (1h 52m)
Most of these movies take place back in the day, with old-school mobsters making up the bulk of cinema's greatest gang films. Boyz N the Hood, however, is all about 90s urban gang culture.
Once upon a time in South Central LA, young Tre is sent to live with his tough-loving father. Despite the rough neighborhood, Tre grows into a respectable young man... until his old friends return from prison.
Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, and Laurence Fishburne star in what was supposed to be a script for film school application, but turned into an Oscar-winning classic that launched careers and changed cinema forever.
Director John Singleton became the first African American—and youngest person—to get an Oscar nomination for Best Director, thanks to this poignant coming-of-age drama.
4. The Public Enemy (1931)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods
Crime, Drama (1h 23m)
The Public Enemy wasn't just set during the era of Al Capone and speakeasies—it was made during it!
The early 1930s saw Hollywood take over the film industry and become dominated by big studios, drifting in a kind of limbo phase between "talkies" and censorship laws.
Set in Chicago, a hotbed for Prohibition-era mobsters, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle climb the ladder from poverty to bootlegged riches. They credit their success to "beer and blood" (which is the title of the unpublished novel The Public Enemy was based on).
The Public Enemy is a gangster-versus-law narrative, rather than the typical gang-versus-gang story of the time. Critics weren't overly fond of its glorification of crime, but that's not much of an issue nowadays.
3. The Godfather (1972)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan
Crime, Drama (2h 55m)
It's hard to pick just one film from this legendary trilogy... so even if I'm going with the first, it's really a stand-in for the entire series. The Godfather is best appreciated in its full form, anyway.
Adapted from Mario Puzo's 1969 novel, The Godfather movies center on the Corleone crime family, for whom loyalty means everything.
Marlon Brando leads the family as Vito Corleone, a Sicilian orphan and immigrant who builds his empire from scratch. Vito has four children, with Michael (Al Pacino) next in line for the throne.
Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning trilogy is in the top five of pretty much any mainstream "best movies" list. The complex storyline, high-caliber acting, symbolic cinematography, and keen character development all make for a cinematic masterpiece.
2. City of God (2002)
Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund
Starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Matheus Nachtergaele
Crime, Drama (2h 10m)
City of God might just be the least glamorized gangster movie on our list. The savagely vicious gangs in Cidade de Deus make The Gentlemen look like a tea party.
Plus, this one's based on a real period of time when warfare in Rio was at its peak—and the filmmakers made the brave decision to shoot on-location (using locals instead of actors).
Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund direct this Brazilian crime epic that's not for the faint-hearted. We witness Rio's gang culture through the eyes of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young wannabe photographer who captures the events on his camera and narrates the movie.
City of God is a raw and bloody-nosed depiction of poverty and what it can lead to, made all the more astounding by the fact it even got made at all. (That said, some Brazilian critics disliked how City of God reduced the favela down to pure violence.)
1. Goodfellas (1990)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci
Biography, Crime, Drama (2h 25m)
Did you know Martin Scorsese was reluctant to make yet another gangster film when he was planning Goodfellas? It ended up being the most famous gangster movie of all time.
Robert De Niro is at the forefront in one of his most iconic roles, alongside Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci (with his notoriously improvised "Funny how?" scene).
Set between the 1950s and 1980s, Goodfellas is the rise-and-fall story that tops them all. The long takes and candid dialogue give us a peek into the everyday life of a mafia man as he saunters from nightclubs to drug deals to family dinners.
Goodfellas is the epitome of Scorsese's trademarks, as if all his other gangster films were just practice for this one. It's the perfect balance between naturalism, entertainment, and craftsmanship!