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One genre that British cinema is often associated with is the gangster genre, having produced many classics over the years. They can offer guns, glamour and geezers or have a more realistic and grounded take and be a much more hard-hitting affair because of it. In recent years, British gangster movies have become numerous, filling supermarket shelves across the nation, being cheap to make and have a guaranteed audience, ensuring a quick profit. But there are many good offerings, old and new, in the British gangster genre.
The lives of two of Britain’s most notorious gangsters, the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie is getting updated cinematic treatment with Tom Hardy taking on both roles. With Legend coming out this week in the UK and on October 2 in the USA we at Entertainment Fuse take a look at some Great British gangster movies.
10. Eastern Promise
From director David Cronenberg and writer Steven Knight is the British-American-Canadian co-production Eastern Promise. A movie that was highly praised when it was first released in 2007, a truly dark crime movie that shows there is no glamour in the criminal world.
Naomi Watts stars as Anna Khitrova, an English nurse from a Russian background who investigates the death of a Russian teenager who dies during childbirth. While searching through the girl’s belongings, Anna finds her diary, leading the nurse to the Russian Mafia in London and their dark operations of sex trafficking young girls into the nation.
Eastern Promise is a truly bleak and violent crime movie as you would expect with its subject matter and has a great performance from Viggo Mortensen as a rising Russian gangster. It is also a movie that has one of the best naked fight scenes ever put to film.
9. Sexy Beast
The dark-comedy crime film Sexy Beast was a movie that quickly became a cult classic upon its release back in 2000, earning praise from critics and audiences alike. It was a movie that became known for its humor and Ben Kingsley’s fantastic turn as a sociopathic gangster, using some more colorful words in the English language, surprising many.
Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) is a retired safe-cracker who lives in retirement on the coast of Spain. But his world is rocked when Don Logan (Kingsley) arrives on his doorstep, wanting to recruit Dove for one last job to rob an exclusive bank in London. This request leads to the two men clashing when Logan imposes his presence on Dove.
Sexy Beast was a big hit, making over £31 Million from its budget of £4.2 Million, declared the 15th greatest British film of all time by Total Film magazine in 2004 and earned Kingsley an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The heist scene ended up being stolen by the British action TV show Ultimate Force.
8. Brighton Rock
1947’s Brighton Rock is the oldest movie to make this list, a British Noir crime thriller set in the 1930s. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, Brighton Rock gave Richard Attenborough his first leading role as the teenage gangster/psychopath Pinkie Brown which earned him a lot of deserved praise.
Set in the seaside tourist town of Brighton on the South Coast of England, Pinkie is a part of a protection racket operating in the town. When Pinkie murders a man on the beach, he discovers there was a witness, Rose (Carol Marsh), a 17-year-old waitress and a committed Catholic. To silence her Pinkie marries Rose because a wife cannot testify against their husband. In the midst of this is Ida Arnold (Hermione Baddeley) investigating the man’s death, not trusting Pinkie while Pinkie’s crew are set to go to war with an older gangster.
Brighton Rock was a highly atmospheric movie, keeping with its cousins from the United States and France and grim and realistic for the standards of the time. Obviously, it is a fairly tame affair now, but it was banned in the Australian state of New South Wales. Rowen Joffé (son of Ronald Joffé) remade the movie in 2010, updating the setting to the Mods and Rockers conflicts of the 1960s.
Redemption (Hummingbird in the UK) is the second movie written by Steven Knight, and also serving as his directional debut. Set over the course of a year, Redemption follows Joseph “Joey” Smith (Jason Statham), a homeless man on the streets of London. He is a former Special Forces operative suffering from PTSD and an alcoholic because of it. Joey comes across an unoccupied luxury flat and gets recruited by the Chinese Triads in London to act as their enforcer. Joey uses the year to rebuild his life, make money, romance a Polish nun (Agata Buzek), find the man who murdered his friend and makes amends for all the sins he has committed in his life.
Redemption is a much more serious and dramatic movie from Statham, having only three quick action scene and focused on the characters and their past while showing a less glamorous crime world. It is also a film that shows that even The Stath can cry.
6. Mona Lisa
The 1986 crime thriller Mona Lisa is the first movie on this list to feature the talents of Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine; an excellent movie to come out of Britain in the 1980s by Irish writer/director Neil Jordan.
George (Hoskins) is an ex-criminal who is recently released from prison and given a job to chauffeur a high-class escort, Simone (Cathy Tyson). As George drives the woman from client to client, the two form a friendship and the George agrees to help Simone find her lost friend in the London underworld. But this action leads to George and Simone coming into conflict with George’s former crime boss, Denny (Caine).
Hoskins was highly praised for his performance, being nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor and won the Golden Award and BAFTA award. Mona Lisa was a dark and grim movie that looks at a very sleazy underworld.
Snatch is the first of two Guy Ritchie movies to make this list, a man whose presence on the gangster genre helped resurrect it in the UK. Following the success of his first movie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie was given more money allowing him to recruit Hollywood talent like Benicio del Toro and Brad Pitt, performing with an incomprehensible Irish dialect.
Like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch tells multiple stories, this time involving underground boxing, illegal gambling and stolen diamonds being lost in the London underworld. All these storylines come together as the various gangsters end up having the same interests.
Snatch is a popular movie, having a 8.3 rating on IMDB. But some have criticized it for being a repeat of Ritchie’s first movie, just with a bigger name cast.
4. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
The crime comedy Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was Guy Ritchie’s debut movie and arguably his best. Set in the London underworld four small time crooks are indebted to a ruthless gangster, “Hatchet” Harry Londsdale (P. H. Moriarty), to the sum of £500,000 after one of them looses in a rigged card game. With only 30 days to pay the debt, the friends find out about a plan by a gang of theifs to steal from a group of middle-class drug growers and think the solution is to hijack the robbery. This action leads to a collision course for the friends, Hatchet and his enforcer Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) and the brutal gang leader Diamond Dog (Frank Harper).
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels has all the tropes that audiences have come to expect from Guy Ritchie, such as multiple storylines that collide at the end, Cockney gangsters with silly nicknames, witty, Tarantino-esque dialogue and lots of violence.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was also the debut film for Jason Statham and ex-Wimbledon FC captain Vinnie Jones and it was continued with a Channel 4 TV show, Lock, Stock, that lasted seven episodes. The success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch led to a wave of imitators in Britain, such as Love, Honour and Obey, Rollin’ with the Nines and Dead Man Running, just to name a few.
3. Layer Cake
Based on a novel by J. J. Connolly Layer Cake was a movie that made Matthew Vaughn move to the director’s chair after being a successful producer. Daniel Craig stars as an unnamed cocaine supplier and manufacturer only known as XXXX. He is a man who aims to retire and tries to keep out of conflict as much as possible. His world starts to unravel when he is asked to find the wayward teenage daughter of a leading London crime lord. Even worse, XXXX ends up crossing a Serbian war criminal turned drug dealer when he inadvertently buys stolen ecstasy pills.
Layer Cake was the start of a successful for career for Vaughn, a strong crime movie that is known for its complex plotting, Vaughn’s bright visual style and its violence. It was a movie that has a great cast of British talent, like Colm Meaney, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Tom Hardy, Sally Hawkins and Ben Whishaw. Producer Barbara Broccoli confessed it was the movie role that convinced her to cast Craig as James Bond and consider Vaughn to direct Casino Royale.
2. The Long Good Friday
The Long Good Friday is an adored gangster movie from 1980, a movie that has the likes of Bob Hoskins in one of his best roles, Helen Mirren and Pierce Bronsan in one of his first film roles. Hoskins stars as Harold Shard, London’s leading crime lord who is set to make a lucrative deal with the American Mafia. When they visit on Good Friday, Shard and his crew give the Americans a tour of London and tells them of their grand plan to redevelop the city. However, on this day the IRA goes to war with Shard over a quarrel about money after one of his gang members stole £5000 from them. They attack Shard’s men, property and assets in a co-ordinated attack. It’s up to Shard to find out who is responsible and how to stop them before the Americans skip town and he does it the typical British gangster way – with violence and bloodshed.
The Long Good Friday is compulsivity viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of gangster movies and British cinema.
Dishonorable Mention: Killer Bitch
Gangster movies are a dime-a-dozen in the UK, with many straight-to-DVD offerings. There are so many cheap, poorly made movies that it is hard to find one to stand out for its awfulness. But 2010’s Killer Bitch is a truly remarkable movie because of how terrible it is. The title alone should be enough of a warning sign.
The story of Killer Bitch is fairly standard – Yvette (Yvette Rowland) witnesses her boyfriend being murdered and a group of local gangsters offers to protect her and everyone she knows. In return, Yvette has to kill five men on their hit-list. What makes Killer Bitch is its over-the-top violence, nudity, a highly controversial rape scene, ultra cheap production values and stunt casting that looks like the producers were reading news stories in the Daily Star. The cast included former football hooligans James Marriner and Cass Pennant, former gangster Dave Courtney, cage-fighter Alex Reid, best known for his relationship with Katie Price and Michael ‘King of the Chavs’ Carroll.
James Benefield from Eye For Film describes the movie best as “it looks like it’s been shot by a sexually starved 15 year old film student who is both untalented, and careless about rudimentary research.”
1. Get Carter
Get Carter is one of Michael Caine’s most iconic roles and considering his filmography includes Zulu, Alfie, The Italian Job and The Dark Knight Trilogy, that is an impressive feat. Based on Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home, Get Carter is a dark, grim and violent flick that showcases Caine at his finest.
Caine stars as Jack Carter, a London based gangster who returns to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for his brother’s funeral. While up in the North-East Jack discovers his brother was murdered, leading the gangster into conflict with crime organizations in the area and finding out about a trade of illegal pornography which hits close to home.
Get Carter is beloved in the UK, being ranked the 16th best British Film of the 20th Century by the BFI in 1999 and declared the best British film by Total Film in 2004. Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie have also praised the movie and the re-evaluation in the late 90s led to the novel being reissued after being out of print. But the movie also suffered an awful Hollywood remake in 2000 starring Sylvester Stallone as Carter and Michael Caine playing his boss.