The British gangster film is a genre that has taken on a world of its own. Grey-tinged gritty streets, fast-paced cheeky dialogue and crime-ridden organisations thriving under the buzzing metropolis of London, have all shaped the ethos of gangland thrillers. Unlike their grandiose American counterparts, Brits tend to strive for realism; an exposé of a very real underworld, rather than a flashy Italian-American operation that centres on family values. Realism doesn’t mean doom and gloom, though. Behind the grittiness is acerbic British wit as dry as London’s finest gins – it’s not all geezers and cockney rhyming slang, you know.
As the genre continues to evolve, most recently with the upcoming release of nail-biting thriller Tango One available on digital download from 5th March and DVD from 19th March, we’re taking a look at the best British gangster films, past and present, which have influenced the genre and made it into what we know and love today:
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Where better to start? The Long Good Friday is a quintessential British crime classic. From the second you hear the emphatic synth soundtrack opening the film and see Bob Hoskins at his rip-roaring best; you know you’re in for a treat. Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a successful cockney mobster with a yacht, penthouse and an intelligent mistress (Helen Mirren). When a series of bombs go off at a vital turning point for his empire, Shand is convinced that there must be a traitor among his ranks and he will find out – through any means necessary. The film that paved the way for others like it, The Long Good Friday is one of the most influential thrillers to have graced British cinema.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Guy Ritchie’s debut and forever his calling card. Lock Stock… introduced the world to Ritchie’s penchant for frantic editing, sharply written dialogue and non-linear plotlines. Four friends with unscrupulous backgrounds (of course) are involved in a botched card game that launches them into a world of unexpected events, crime and two antique shotguns. Sit back in your leather armchair whilst wearing your smoking jacket, light up your pipe and pour the whisky, you’re in for a chaotic and exhilarating treat.
Do you like dogs? Never have we wept so much over the incineration of a caravan than in Guy Ritchie’s magnum opus, Snatch. The fast cuts, relentless action and wise cracks that have coloured a majority of British gangster films in the 21st century have their roots in this early-noughties favourite. With simultaneous plots involving boxing promoters, incompetent robbers, a stolen diamond and a Russian hitman, Snatch has to be seen rather than explained. Big hitters Benicio Del Toro, Jason Statham and Brad Pitt (to name but a few) are at their comical/gangstery best here, in what became a decade defining film. Ps. If you can actually understand what Brad Pitt is saying, please post a transcript below. Thanks in advance.
Sexy Beast (2000)
Ray Winstone, whose picture is probably under every dictionary definition of the word ‘cockney geezer’, and the always captivating Ben Kingsley, star in this incredibly underrated Brit-ish (a good portion of it is set in Spain) gangster flick. Gal (Winstone) is an ex-gangster trying to enjoy his retirement from the profession, until the brutal Don Logan (Kingsley) recruits him for one last job. Sexy Beast is a rare breed of film that encapsulates you for an intimidating 90 minutes, making you unsure whether to laugh or cry.
Layer Cake (2004)
Before he was Bond, Daniel Craig was a cocaine dealer…in Layer Cake. Apparently it’s hard to retire in gangland, as Craig’s character soon finds out. On the verge of early retirement, he gets roped into two last assignments which prove to be more convoluted than originally planned, even for a man of his expertise. One yellow Range Rover, Michael Gambon, Sienna Miller and a young Tom Hardy later, Layer Cake ends up with some of the most memorable scenes in modern British cinema. If you go in to it expecting Spectre, then you’ll be disappointed. If you’re expecting a gripping 105 minutes that leaves you breathless, you’re in luck.
Eastern Promises (2007)
London. Russian gangsters. Viggo Mortensen. David Cronenburg. A winning combination, I’m sure you’ll agree. The only entry on this list devoid of British gangsters, Eastern Promises is the intense story of Anna (Naomi Watts), a London midwife who is bequeathed a diary by a dying Russian girl. Admittedly, this doesn’t sound like the set up of your standard mob drama. However, the journal is a poisoned chalice that leads her into the unforgiving world of the Russian mafia. This one is slightly heavier than the others, no laughs here, but is equally, if not more, hard hitting. Almost too gritty at times, Eastern Promises is a must watch – but don’t expect to have any fingernails left by the end.
In Bruges (2008)
You’ll never see a film mention alcoves as much as this one. Also, putting In Bruges in this list is cheating a bit – Ralph Fiennes is a British gangster at the heart of the plot – but it is a British gangster film in tone, humour and heart. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are awaiting orders from their boss, Harry (Fiennes), who has sent them to Bruges. What follows is a discombobulated romp through the Belgian city, which comprises of extremely witty humour and Ralph Fiennes’ character calling his wife an inanimate object. It’s the best humorous gangster film by a country mile.
Tango One (2018)
Tango One is the latest addition to the British gangland family. A nail-biting thriller that puts a twist on the modern template for gangster films, Tango One asks what a criminal mastermind would do when he is forced to go off grid; how far he would go to keep what he has built and what is rightfully his. The film follows Den Donovan (Vincent Regan), one of Britain’s most wanted men, as he is hunted mercilessly by the police. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, he’s been in exile from the UK for years, but it so happens that his empire is on the verge of collapse and his family life is in tatters. Not much to worry about then. A parable on how absolute power corrupts absolutely, Tango One easily joins the slippery underbelly that Layer Cake and Sexy Beast helped to pioneer. Den is in an unforgiving frame of mind.