Since the early days of Hollywood, gangsters and films have had a rip-roaring relationship with one another. We all love a bit of tragedy, treachery, and tension keeping us on the edge of our seats, hotly anticipating the next barrage of blood, bullets and bluster.
Yet outside of well-loved American classics which celebrate the magical marriage of movies and the mob such as the Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas and Scarface, there’s a lot of less well-known gangster flicks on the other side of the pond. Come on you dozy tarts, it’s time to take a butchers at some Brit crime masterpieces as Screenrant presents The 13 Best British Gangster Films Of All Time.
Before he royally embarrassed himself in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the late, great Bob Hoskins made a name for himself in British gangster classic The Long Good Friday. Hoskins plays old school cockney villain Harold Shand who is one of the most convincing gangsters ever to kill a man on the big screen; in Shand's case, it involves brutally killing his best mate.
Little in stature but boasting a big presence and penchant for casual violence, Harold struts around the place like a pit bull on steroids. He is the undisputed king of the London underworld until the IRA move in on his patch, bundle him into a car and drive him to a quiet place where they can execute him in peace.
Yet our Harold remains a proud nut job to the end, and in the face of certain death he simply grits his teeth, snarls, flares his nostrils and stares with willful defiance from the backseat of his captor's car, as Hopkins delivers a true master-class of how to act through facial expressions alone. "Have it, you slag!"
Rock stars often get the urge to throw down the mic and pick up a screenplay, and it doesn't always ends well, but in McVicar, The Who’s Roger Daltrery has a larger than life presence as the title character. Based on a true story, McVicar sees Daltrey exudes a big screw-you attitude as a man with not so much a chip but a bag of potatoes on his shoulder. He’s been sentenced to 26 years for armed robbery and refuses to do a solitary second of his time without kicking off with more rage and resentment than an army of over-tired and hungry toddlers.
The film starts with McVicar having a hissy fit about not being able to wear his f**king trainers, and it just gets better, as our John and his plucky mate Walter (Adam Faith) constantly bait the screws and ingeniously escape from a maximum security wing in Durham Prison using nothing but sheer guile and plenty of elbow grease.
Although a lot of people in the film keep telling McVicar to “be lucky,” he’s not, and after escaping jail he falls back in with a crowd of gangster mates, one of whom grasses him up to the police and he’s back behind bars with even more porridge to go stir crazy with. All this and a great soundtrack by Daltrey to boot. What’s not to like?
Down Terrace is one of the stranger gangster films to come out of Britain, but its domestic and dysfunctional weirdness is what sharpens its edge and makes it a razor sharp observation on the mundane reality of crime. Shot in eight days and riddled with dark humor, Ben Wheatley’s film documents what happens when career criminal Bill and his son Karl are released from prison to the family home in Brighton.
There’s none of Shane Ritchie’s trademark flashiness or mockney muppetry in Down Terrace, but what there is are some classic performances by relative unknowns, in particular a star turn from Robert Hill as guitar-playing gangster Bill, and enough treachery, duplicity, betrayal, and neurotic paranoia, to make any of the messed up characters capable of killing one another at any time - which incidentally is something which happens quite frequently in this movie.
It was a gamble getting Tom Hardy to play both Ronnie and Reggie Kray in Brian Helgeland’s film on the notorious East End villains, but as anyone who’s seen Legend will know, it paid off handsomely.
The Krays are to British crime lore what Zeus is to Greek myth. Yet until Legend swaggered onto the scene like a knuckle duster, bottle wielding thug ready to party, the only other serious film which had been made about the life and times of Ronnie and Reggie was the imaginatively titled The Krays (1990) featuring British pop peacocks Gary and Martin Kemp.
After seeing Hardy’s take on psychotic Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders, it was obvious that at long last here was an actor capable of doing justice to Ronnie Kray’s notoriously charismatic yet violently unhinged and paranoid schizophrenic personality. And boy does Hardy deliver the goods with a disturbing camp menace and plenty of aplomb. In contrast to Ronnie wild-eyed insanity, Hardy’s take on the more restrained, troubled, but equally as vicious Reggie is just as convincing. So much so that he makes you forget the twins are played by the same actor. That’s some serious talent.
The gangster genre is a treasure chest of films full of memorable lines - “Say hello to my little friend,” or “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” to quote a few. In Get Carter, every other line Michael Caine delivers is destined to be repeated down the pub until the big man calls last orders.
Michael Caine may be a man of few words as the fish-eyed and colder than cold Jack Carter, but when he speaks, you'd better listen, son. Who else but the flighty cockney sparrow Caine could do justice to such classics as, “You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job. Now behave yourself.” Certainly not Sylvester Stallone in the dreadful 2000 remake. And lest we forget, Carter also has a romantic side too, as he proves quite sweetly when he catches up with an old acquaintance and said, “You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Piss holes in the snow.”
It’s true Jack Carter doesn’t say much, but like the sparse, taut and tension building revenge thriller in which he stars, he doesn’t pull any punches as he roams the no-man’s land of the late 1960s looking for the men who killed his brother. It's a bleak, desolate and unforgiving landscape where extreme violence is as casual as having a cup of Rosie. Brew up, mucker!
Famous for his portrayal of history’s greatest pacifist in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, thespian Ben Kingsley caught everyone’s eye as the bug-eyed and deeply disturbing psychopath Don Logan in Sexy Beast.
Kingsley apparently based Logan on his grandmother who he described as a “vile and extremely unpleasant woman.” In light of this you can only imagine what kind of hell Christmas dinner at the Kingsley household must have been like with a character like Don Logan snarling, “Pass me the gravy, you greedy slag,” or, “I’ll ram those f**king spuds down you cake-hole if you don’t shut the f**k up and pull the cracker!”
Sexy Beast is Kingsley’s film, but Ray Winstone as former con Gary “Gal” Dove living the high life in sunny Spain, gives his usual charismatic turn as a big-hearted safe-cracker who just wants a peaceful life free of vicious villains like Logan. Not to mention the equally menacing Teddy Bass, played like a cold-blooded serpent by the dead-eyed Ian McShane, in a film that offers a gangster for any occasion, and proves if you want out of “the life” for good, then you’ve got to earn it the hard way, with blood, blood, and more blood.
Guy Ritchie’s Snatch has often been accused of prioritizing style over substance, but when a film is this entertaining and stylish and action-packed why complain that there’s no takeaway message? And let’s be honest: what would you rather watch, Woody Allen withering on about his insecurities, or Brad Pitt playing an Irish traveler with a punch like plutonium?
Alongside Fight Club, Snatch is one of Pitt’s finest hours. Playing pikey Mickey O’ Neil, Pitt appears to relish playing the role of a man whose life revolves around greyhounds, caravans, bare knuckled fighting, cheap cider, garish gold jewelry, wads of dirty cash, crooked deals, and who speaks in the indecipherable tones of someone who hasn’t got much time for the trapping and sensibilities of the modern world.
The modern world however comes bursting through in the shape of old East End villain Brick Top, who burns down Mickey’s mother’s caravan with her inside it, all because her son refused to throw a fight. Needles to say, Mickey doesn’t take this lying down. As the deeply obnoxious Brick Top and his henchmen find out, it’s not a good idea to go to war with the traveling community.
Before he was given a license to kill by Her Majesty, Daniel Craig appeared in the terribly titled Layer Cake as an unnamed London underworld character who supplies cocaine on a grand scale.
Sprinkling the white stuff everywhere he travels, like some sort of cockney Pablo Escobar, Craig’s character wants to put enough cash away to get out of the game and live the high life free of low-level scum and high-level psychopaths. Alas, the gangster of the mean streets finds out that although crime pays it also collects, and if you’re in the habit of writing cheques your body can't cash, the collateral could be your life.
Layer Cake has a dense plot of betrayal and duplicity where anyone can kick off and stab anyone else in the back at the drop of a hat or a sneer of a lip. Craig was so engaging as a morally ambiguous man in a world gone to hell, he was ear-marked to play James Bond on the strength of this role.
Jude Law clearly had a lot of fun playing the bumbling, alcoholic, and neurotic safecracker Dom Hemingway. Maybe it had something to do with the freedom of throwing off his usual debonair style and playing an out of shape slob with bad teeth, a broken nose, and mutton chops, who lurks on the fringes off society. Or maybe it’s just because theatrical types love playing gangsters.
Dom is a criminal who’s unlucky in life and unlucky in his choice of career. After serving 12 years in the big house for refusing to rat out his boss, Dom is released and stumbles with a certain swagger and brassy bravado from one disaster to the next, delivering a masterclass in witty ripostes and bar-room philosophy speeches in the face of death threats and unspeakable violence.
If Charles Bukowsi had chosen a life of crime, you’d imagine he’d act, look, and probably smell like Dom Hemmingway. Born to lose, Dom lives to win, except the odds are always stacked. This doesn’t stop the born optimist and eternal chancer from playing the house every chance he gets, to some pretty entertaining results. Every Dom has his day, and the film keeps the viewer hooked throughout, to see if this obnoxious but endearingly charismatic Dom gets his.
On paper, any gangster film directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Tom Hardy, Idris Elba, and Gerald Butler should be worth its weight in casual violence and carefully crafted insults; RocknRolla doesn’t disappoint.
As usual with Ritchie the plot is more layered than a web woven by a innately creative spider dosed with LSD, but if the devil is in the detail, then the fun is in the adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride that RocknRola offers through a modern day London subculture where gangs of all shape, power and nationality slug it out to rule the roost and lay claim to the swag.
RocknRolla is as nihilistic, nasty, and as flashy and superficial as a made for MTV Madonna video from the 1980s, and a whole lot more entertaining.
The “Essex Boys” gangland murders, which took place in December 1995, have become part of British gangster folklore. The triple-murder of Tony Tucker, Pat Tate and Craig Rolfe has been the subject of many a movie, but none more hard-hitting and relentless as Rise of the Footsoldier.
Based on the memoirs of notorious Inter City firm hooligan Carlton Leach, who went onto become a major player in the gangster underworld, Rise of the Footsoldier is not everyone’s cup of poison but it pulls no punches in its unrelenting and graphic portrayal of a life governed by violence, as Carlton rises through the ranks and eventually becomes good chums with the “Essex Boys”.
Dismissed as “distasteful and dim-witted”, the film makes no apologies for what it is and who it’s about. It’s not pretty, it’s not nice, but neither are the lives the characters in the film lead. Besides, perfumed roses don’t usually tend to blossom in dark and dank sewers.
The film that made Guy Ritchie’s name is still hard to beat when it comes to capturing the comedy, desperation, machiavellian intent, random violence, and sheer guile invoked in the lives of money-grabbing wide boys, down and outs, and hard cases, all struggling to cut themselves a slice of the cash pie.
Described as the best British gangster movie since Long Good Friday, Ritchie’s masterpiece created a genre all of it’s own during the cool Britannia bubble in which the movie was made.
Much parodied but never bettered, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was aided and abetted by a classic soundtrack, and made a household name of Jason Statham as well as introducing former footballer Vinnie Jones to Hollywood. The film even gave Sting his best cameo since Quadrophenia, and from the first second to the last, only the hardest heart would fail to be captured by the film’s youthful exuberance.
As well as being one of the finest songs Queen ever recorded, Brighton Rock also happens to be a classic film about gangsters from back in the day. In America it was retitled Young Scarface. Why? I guess we’ll never know.
Based on a Graham Greene novel and starring Richard Attenborough as, wait for it, Pinkie, the movie revolves around the vicious race-track gangs of the 1930s, currently being immortalized in the TV show, Peaky Blinders. Pinkie’s patch is Brighton racecourse, but don’t be fooled by Pinkie’s rather quaint and twee name, he’s a teenage psychopath who’ll kill anyone and everyone to stay out of jail and carry on with a life of crime.
Although rather tame compared with the gratuitous violence audiences have come to expect and love in modern movies, Brighton Rock does carry a tangible air of menace. This comes in the form of Pinkie, who possesses that air of a man who would have been a lot happier if he’d been born a wild animal, free to kill at will and without the shackles of society or the restraint of the law to spoil his murderous rampage and barbaric fun.
So there you have it. You can stick your chick flicks and soggy kleenex where the sun don't shine! It's got to be a dynamite dose of trigger-happy, loose-lipped and hot-headed gangster action every time. Now do one you ponce!