The action-gangster subgenre is almost entirely characterized by the organized crime mobs of Lower Manhattan. Our associations can be somewhat limited to New Yorkers of Italian origin, who say “cwoffee” instead of “coffee,” have large, extended families, and deal in drugs, heists, homicides, and mass fraud. However, this would be a restricted genre perspective that incorporates a vast array of urban gunslingers and not just of the Mafioso-kind.
There are plenty of movies that explore various gang cultures and how they have shaped the world. For years, filmmakers have explored many different gangsters and subcultures outside of the mafia. Here are the best gangster movies that don’t involve the mafia…
15 Public Enemies (2009)
Johnny Depp delivered a brilliant performance as notorious gangster and bank robber John Dillinger in the 2009 biographical crime drama Public Enemies, depicting the Depression-era criminal’s final years as he is relentlessly pursued by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) and declared by J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) as America’s “Public Enemy No. 1.” The engrossing thriller also chronicles the gangster’s relationship with his fellow robbers and members of the Dillinger Gang, which consisted of 13 other criminals including Baby Face Nelson and John “Red” Hamilton.
14 King of New York (1990)
Touting a star-studded ensemble cast led by Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, and Steve Buscemi, the 1990 neo-noir gangster film King of New York features Walken as drug lord Frank White, who after being released from prison sets out to gain complete control of New York’s criminal underworld in hopes of giving back to the poor community and helping those in need. In order to do so, White must first reclaim his empire and eliminate a rival drug cartel and Triad, all the while being hunted down by a group of rogue detectives.
13 Gangs of New York (2002)
Acting chameleon and cinema legend Daniel Day-Lewis once again earned an Academy Award nomination when he portrayed cutthroat gang leader William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 historical crime drama Gangs of New York, following the anti-immigrant Cutting as he is unknowingly targeted by young Irish man Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is determined to get revenge for the murder of his father. Vallon infiltrates Bill the Butcher’s gang and will do anything to see the cold-blooded killer dead, leading to an epic and deadly showdown.
12 Menace II Society (1993)
The Hughes brothers made their directorial debut when they helmed the gritty 1993 teen drama Menace II Society, focusing on best friends Caine Lawson (Tyrin Turner) and O-Dog (Larenz Tate) as they struggle with shedding their gang lifestyle in the Los Angeles projects, as the 18-year-old street hustler fights to escape the dangerous crime world while O-Dog becomes swept up in the ongoing violence. The film was lauded for its powerful depiction of the effects of urban crime and violence and its profound impact on society.
11 Get Carter (1971)
Silver screen great Michael Caine headlined the 1971 British gangster crime drama Get Carter, in which the Oscar-winner appears as the fierce titular London gangster Jack Carter as he investigates the suspicious death of his brother and quickly realizes he was murdered. Carter goes on a violent and bloody rampage as he hunts down the men responsible, going toe-to-toe with crime boss Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne) and leaving a slew of dead bodies in his wake on his quest for revenge.
Get Carter has gone on to gain a reputation as a beloved cult classic, with Caine’s brutal performance as the stone-cold Carter garnering widespread acclaim as well as its many intense twists and turns. The gangster film also features an honest representation of class structure and London’s organized crime world, and landed on the BFI Top 100 British Films of the twentieth century list in 1999.
10 Layer Cake (2004)
It was in 2004’s Layer Cake that Daniel Craig as the nameless, smooth-talking, and immaculately turned out drug dealer sealed his fate as the next face of the Bond franchise. Written and directed by Matthew Vaughn, this dazzling screenplay encapsulates the very essence of the different strands of British culture through the eyes of a criminal, from the understated mews of Notting Hill to the showy, inconspicuous yellow Range Rover.
Layer Cake follows a drug dealer’s bid to retire after one final deal that will see him bank a life-changing sum, but of course, his plans are derailed when he must locate a disgruntled kingpin’s daughter and an ecstasy haul worth £2 million.
9 City of God (2002)
Brazil is a country renowned for its flamboyant culture, its soccer, the Amazon rainforest, and its vast number of favelas. It is in the latter that 2002’s City of God is set. In a lawless neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, two boys, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) and Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), as the pair opt down two very different paths, with one taking up photography and the other working his way up as a drug dealer, as he aspires to be like the gangsters that have become so synonymous with his community.
8 American Gangster (2007)
Denzel Washington is slick, suave, and downright ruthless as Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott’s stylish thriller, American Gangster. Following his boss’ death, Lucas assumes charge of the business’s affairs, while running his drug cartel concurrently. He becomes responsible for transporting opium in the caskets of dead American soldiers coming back from Vietnam.
This is a partly biographical tale that is by no means smooth sailing, as a police officer, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) attempts to bring his rapidly growing empire crashing down.
7 Sexy Beast (2000)
The nouveau riche never looked so good. Many British gangsters seemed to follow the same route, earn their fortune on the British Isles through money laundering, tax evasion, and a series of dodgy drug deals, bank jobs, and murders, before retiring, usually on the run, and immigrating to Spain, where they live the Vida Loca.
2000’s Sexy Beast is a nod to the retired sun-chasing, sangria-drinking Essex gangsters, and is one of the best British gangster movies. Ray Winstone stars in the titular role as Gary Dove, a former gangster who now lives a comfortable life in the Costa del Sol. That’s until a ghost of gangster’s past in the foul-mouthed, psychopathic Don (an amazing Ben Kingsley) reappears demanding he carries out one last job.
6 Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
A British gangland classic that is set to turn 25 this year, Guy Ritchie’s film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is his definitive best as a director. The film runs amok with Cockney rhyming slang, quick cuts, cracking-wise, and a narrative that is tied together in a harmonious yet kinetic manner. It’s essentially an act of Guy Ritchie extremism.
After Eddy (Nick Moran) enters into a poker game with a notorious East London gangster, it transpires that he and his three friends must pay in blood if they can’t foot the small fortune they owe. The out-of-their-depth group is inexperienced in the world of crime, and as they scramble to hatch a plan, they’re thrown obstacle after obstacle. It all ultimately becomes a free-for-all for the cash on offer between rival gangs, drug dealers, and the four men.
5 In Bruges (2008)
It must infuriate the people of Brugge that the film which technically acted as an advert for the city’s gothic beauty uses the English spelling. Grammar policing aside, Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy is an effortless watch that only gets better with each viewing.
With two cool hitmen, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) sent on a mysterious mission to the Belgian medieval relic, Bruges, it quickly emerges the meaning of their fateful trip and what Ken is enlisted by crazed Harry to carry out. In Bruges is a hilarious, brilliantly scripted film, and undoubtedly one of the best Irish movies ever.
4 Boyz n the Hood (1991)
The 1991 crime drama from John Singleton, Boyz n the Hood, is an exploration into a Black community in Los Angeles and their struggle with the hive of criminal activity on their very doorstep. The film follows the lives of three adolescent friends, Tre (Cuba Golding), Doughboy (Ice Cube), and Ricky (Morris Chestnut), as they attempt to navigate the challenges of growing up in an underprivileged, crime-ridden area. The film confronts issues of race, violence, and hopes for the future.
3 Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Any gangster list simply wouldn’t be complete without an ode to the feet-fetishizing filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. In his bloody, all-out-action directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, the Inglourious Basterds creator delivers a sumptuous narrative about six criminals who carry out a diamond heist, only to be foiled by police, leading them to believe that one of their crew is an informant.
2 Scarface (1983)
“All I have in this world is my balls and my word, and I don’t break ’em for no one!” Tony Montana exclaims to Sonny in Brian De Palma’s cocaine-covered Scarface. An iconic ’80s classic, and perhaps the defining movie of its decade, it follows a Cuban immigrant chasing the American dream as he and his friend Sonny make the daring ascent up the Miami drug business.
The mixture of cocaine abuse, an ego and power trip, and narcissism soon begin to send the deplorable Montana on a downward spiral. It’s an epic, classic film, and proof that the Italian mafia doesn’t need to be present in one of the biggest gangster movies ever made.
1 Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Sergio Leone’s 1984 epic is a timeless action-thriller, and the Italian legend masters the art of storytelling with this three-hour extravaganza. Set against the backdrop of Prohibition-era New York City, Once Upon a Time in America is surprisingly not a film that concerns a mafia crime family and instead focuses on Noodles (Robert De Niro). He’s a former gangster who returns to the city after exile and is forced to reconcile with his troubled past, and the vast array of mistakes that led to his timely departure. A remarkable picture that often seems like an opium-induced fever dream, containing some career-best performances.