5 of the Best Films About Real-Life Gangsters

Last weekend, Johnny Depp brought notorious mobster Whitey Bulger back to life in movie theaters across the country. His new film, Black Mass, about the criminal and his attempt to take out the Italian mob, was a hit with critics and audiences. And though it wasn’t Depp’s first foray into the gangster film genre, it’s certainly one of his most compelling performances in years. That’s great news for fans of the actor and the genre.

Hollywood has made countless films about mobsters. Many of them, like The Godfather and Mean Streets, tell the story of fictional criminals and their lavish and violent lives. But some, like Black Mass, take on real mobsters head on, bringing their most unbelievable escapades to the big screen for all to see. These films are especially thrilling, because they’re based in reality. Here are five of the best films about real-life gang gangsters.

1. The Untouchables

'The Untouchables'

Source: Art Linson

Al Capone is one of the most notorious criminals of all time. Imagine being the person tasked with bringing him to justice. That’s what Elliot Ness had to do. And his memoirs, about the police team that tried to take Capone down at the height of prohibition, were the basis for Brian De Palma’s spectacular film, The Untouchables.

It’s as close to a perfect film about mobsters as you can get. The plot is a masterful mix of powerful action sequences and meaty character moments. And it features career-high performances from Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia and Sean Connery. But one of the most noteworthy aspects of The Untouchables is Robert De Niro’s electrifying portrayal of Al Capone. He brings the almost mythical figure to life, capturing his savvy, his persuasiveness, and his ruthlessness. In the end, you’re rooting for the good guys even though you’re not ready to see the bad guys go.

2. Bonnie and Clyde

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in 'Bonnie and Clyde'

Source: Warren Beatty

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker are American legends, due to their violent crime spree and even more violent deaths. Arthur Penn’s classic crime drama Bonnie and Clyde tells their story — and shines some light onto how they managed to captivate the masses. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway star as the titular couple, who buck a chance at a traditional lifestyle in the midst of the Great Depression. Their passion for one another makes them a great team — and over time, their heists turn into full fledged robberies. Bonnie and Clyde is a great gangster movie because it allows you to get swept up in the excitement their reckless lifestyle affords. But it also reveals the humanity behind the infamous pair as they start to realize they’re in over their heads.

3. American Gangster

Denzel Washington in 'American Gangster'

Source: Imagine Entertainment

Films often glamorize the gangster lifestyle — but that’s not the case with Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. This period drama instead focuses on the draw of the people involved, rather than the lives they led. It stars Denzel Washington as the drug-running, smooth-talking Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe as Detective Richie Roberts, who tracked Lucas’s movements as he rose above the New York City mafia to build an empire of his own. American Gangster shows how Lucas’ used his methodical sense for business, fierce commitment to family, and ruthless disregard for those who got in his way to stay on top. He’s slick and charismatic, and despite his heinous acts you can’t help but root for him. Yet in contrast, Roberts’ staunch and unrelenting quest to bring him to justice also draws you in. And when they meet face-to-face, you find yourself wondering how completely dissimilar they are after all.

4. Donnie Brasco

Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in 'Donnie Brasco'

Source: Mandalay Entertainment

Like Goodfellas, this Mike Newell drama follows an up-and-coming mobster and the consequences of his decision to enter organized crime. But the tone of Donnie Brasco couldn’t be more dissimilar. The film follows the titular character (Johnny Depp), introduced as a jewel thief who becomes embroiled in the mob through the aging but still sharp Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino). But Brasco is hiding a big secret — he’s actually Joseph Pistone, an undercover FBI agent. Donnie Brasco shows how seductive the gangster lifestyle can be, even for those sworn to dismantle it. The tension is palpable as Pistone struggles to do his job and protect those he’s become close to. And by focusing on the characters’ relationships and their work within the mob, rather than overt violence, Donnie Brasco is one of the most taut thrillers you’ll ever find within the genre.

5. Goodfellas

Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro in 'Goodfellas'

Source: Irwin Winkler

Unlike the first two films on this list, Goodfellas doesn’t follow gangsters who were household names. But that doesn’t make this Martin Scorsese classic any less compelling. Goodfellas tells the story of the highs and lows of the Lucchese family — known more generally as one of the “five families” within New York’s organized crime culture. The film is told from the perspective of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), who rose up in the family with the help of Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy Devito (Joe Pesci). And because he had the inside scoop, we get to see it all — high-stakes heists, crazy nights at the Copacabana, and the deadly price of crossing the wrong man. Goodfellas stands apart from other gangster films because of the energy that Scorsese and his top-notch cast poor into every frame. From the dialogue to the directorial choices, the entire film feels unpredictable — which fits perfectly into Hill’s story. He says at the beginning of the film that he always wanted to be a gangster. By the end of Goodfellas, we not only see why he’d want to be involved, but also the ultimate cost of falling in with the family.

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