Movies & TV / Columns

The 411 Movies Top 5: The Top 5 Gangster Movies

September 19, 2015 | Posted by Shawn S. Lealos

The 411 Movies Top 5: Hello everyone and welcome to 411 Movies Top 5 List. We take a topic each week and all the writers here on 411 wrestling will have the ability to participate and give us their Top 5 on said topic. So, onto this week’s topic…

The Top 5 Gangster Movies

5. SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO – This early 1990’s Dolph Lundgren flick, which also stars Brandon Lee, is the movie that I tend to think of most when I think of the Japanese mafia, the yakuza (although my introduction to the yakuza was in Lundgren’s The Punisher, which came out one year before Little Tokyo). Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is the top boss of the yakuza gang that Lundgren’s LA cop is after and their final battle is pretty dang awesome. But more importantly we get to see things like cutting fingers off if you make a mistake, the whole tattoo thing, and gang members killing themselves instead of snitching and talking to the authorities. I had never seen that kind of thing before in what amounts to a mob movie. There are probably better overall yakuza movies (Black Rain by Ridley Scott is pretty cool) but Showdown in Little Tokyo is the one that I tend to think of when someone says “Japanese mafia in the movies.”

4. LAST MAN STANDING – This Walter Hill flick features Bruce Willis as John Smith, a travelling badass who ends up in a small Texas border town that’s home to two mafia gangs (one Italian, one Irish) running booze in 1932. Smith comes into town, guns blazing, and ends up working for both gangs at one point or another. If it sounds like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, well, you’re right. Last Man Standing is essentially an adaptation of both of those stories and Kurosawa is listed in the credits. And that’s what makes Last Man Standing so interesting, because it takes that samurai/western story and puts in smack dab in the middle of a mob war. And while the mob war is kind of a cliché (Smith even says while eating dinner with the Italian gang that his surroundings are like out of a “dime novel”) Hill populates his gangs with great actors, like Ned Eisenberg and Michael Imperioli on the Italian side and David Patrick Kelly and Christopher Walken on the Irish side (and on top of that Bruce Dern is the asshole town sheriff and William Sanderson is the local bar owner). I love the atmosphere of this movie, and the overall feel of the movie. The soundtrack is pretty great, too. If you haven’t seen it, track it down and check it out. If you’re a Walter Hill nerd I think you’ll enjoy it.

3. EASTERN PROMISES – This second mob collaboration between director David Cronenberg and star Viggo Mortensen focusses on the Russian mafia and features Mortensen as one of the scariest mobsters in the history of movies. Of course, for those of you who have seen Eastern Promises know that Mortensen’s Nikolai Luzhin isn’t exactly a full on real Russian mobster, but we don’t find that out until the end of the movie. Up until that point we see Luzhin as a full on psycho, as a guy that cuts up dead bodies and deals with the nitty gritty of the day to day what have you of the London Russian mob. Mortensen was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, and watching him you can see why. He’s just amazing. And Cronenberg’s direction is measured, slick, and scary as hell. You’re never going to want to be a guy like Luzhin and his bosses and associates. These are horrible, terrifying people. The movie also features the second best naked man fight in movie history (Borat is the first). There has been talk of a sequel to Eastern Promises for several years. It will be awesome if it ever happens, although I doubt it ever will. We really don’t need one. Eastern Promises is a masterpiece.

2. GOODFELLAS – Martin Scorsese has made several mob centric movies, and Goodfellas is easily the best of the bunch (Casino is good, too, but Goodfellas is better). It features classic performances by Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci, and has become the movie that all modern mob movies tend to ape. Yes, The Godfather still gets its due, but Goodfellas is the one that everyone tries to emulate. Without Goodfellas you don’t have The Sopranos or any foul mouthed mobsters on TV or in low budget movies. I haven’t seen it in a long time. I think it’s time to reconnect with it. I need to be able to quote this movie more.

1. KING OF NEW YORK: This mob flick, directed by the great Abel Ferrara, stars Christopher Walken as Frank White, a drug lord mobster who gets out of jail and starts killing his fellow mobsters left and right because he wants to own New York City. David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, and Victor Argo try to take White down. King of New York is a weird movie that is both exhilarating and depressing at the same time. Mob boss White has all sorts of charisma and probably could have been a legitimate “legitimate businessman” if he wanted to. I mean, he jokes that he wants to be mayor at one point. He probably could have been mayor if he wanted to be. But he wanted to get back into the drug and killing business the second he got of prison. That’s awful and a missed opportunity. Walken is so damn good in the movie (that scene on the subway, where he’s feeling up his lawyer girlfriend, brandishing his gun in front of muggers, and then offering those muggers a job is my favorite scene in the movie, outside of the double barrel shotgun blast to the head scene), and Larry Fishburne kicks ass as White’s main henchman Jimmy Jump. Jimmy Jump could have helped White do good, too, as he has charisma and the respect of the people (he buys that kid a soda. What a nice guy). But Jimmy is a scumbag, too, and that’s unfortunate. I’m shocked this movie hasn’t been remade yet.

5. THE DEPARTED – After it’d been so long since Casino, I thought perhaps Marty’s days of telling organized crime stories were over. Thankfully they weren’t, as we got ourselves a modern tale set in Boston, about crooked cops, informants, all working for Jack Nicolson’s character, who got himself a chance to deliver one last great performance. Besides Jack, we got Matt Damon, Leo, Martin Sheen, Wahlberg, and Baldwin all keeping the pace with him, and helping to see to it that this wasn’t a one performance film. I must admit though, it’s not a perfect film, as just about everything involving the therapist I find rather dull, especially with Leo, and often times just skip over it when I’m watching this movie. So while I can’t exactly put it with the rare air that Casino & Goodfellas breathe, it comes damn close.

4. A BRONX TALE – Oddly enough, for how great this movie is, most people don’t know about it. Starring Robert DeNiro and Chazz Palminteri, it’s about a kid named C, growing up in The Bronx during the second half of the 20th century, and being torn between his two idols; his father, played by DeNiro, who is a hard working bus driver that is devoutly straight laced, and the local crime boss, Sonny, played by Chazz. The movie is split into two halves, with the first taking place during C’s childhood, and the latter half when he’s a teenager. For my money, this film is all about the first half, but the second still has quite a bit to offer. It’s also one of those films where you see a major actor at one point in almost the role of an extra, and for the rest of the film you’re going “was that him? Nah, couldn’t be, why get a major star for that? But I swear, it looked and sounded just like him”. Turns out, it was him.

3. AMERICAN GANGSTER – In the pantheon of crime epics, I put American Gangster up there with the likes of Goodfellas and Casino. A masterpiece of a film that tells the parallel stories of two guys on opposite sides of the law. Frank, played by Denzel Washington, carves a path of success like no other in the drug world, and maintains it with little to no outside help due to the fact he always played it low-key. While other guys were flashing what little they had, Frank had it all and told nobody. He brings the purest brand of heroin in Harlem, and it soon catches the idea of Richie, played by Russel Crowe, a cop who is told that he’s too-clean-for-his-own-good, but lands the lead gig of a special drug task force, who soon learns who the real King of Harlem is. One of those films that I could catch on TV, and no matter where it’s at, I know I’m gonna sit out the rest of it. Simply put, it’s fucking fantastic.

2. GOODFELLAS – This is one of those films where despite all the “an opinion can’t be wrong”, a person is wrong if they don’t like it. An absolutely flawless, all time great. The kind of film that if you find it on TV, you’ll stick around and finish it out, even if it’s on basic cable and Pesci is telling everyone to “forget themselves”. The older generations have The Godfather, but my generation has Goodfellas. The story of Henry Hill and all the ups & downs he faced as a simple guy who worked in construction, along with his wife, who was not a fan of “ready made whores”, and his two best friends Jimmy and Tommy, with one looking this way, the other lookin’ that way, and this guy’s like ‘what? Waddya want from me?’.

1. CASINO – For me, Casino has always been the better picture. I prefer the lead character of Ace to Henry Hill, and find this film just edges out Goodfellas in all the important categories. This is really the only 3 hour film that I can see at least once a week and never tire of it. For me this is DeNiro’s best work, as he plays a borderline OCD gambler named Ace Rothstein, and is handed the keys to one of the biggest casinos on the strip. He wants to run the place in an honest, respectable manner, but Joe Pesci’s character, Nicky, tends to do things with a little more flare. Pesci as always is fantastic, and often steals any scene he’s in, as he’s an over-bearing, obnoxious asshole that always makes me laugh, whether it’s intentional or not. Beyond the humor, great acting, sets, music and characters, Casino also delivers some of the most brutal scenes in non-horror history, one of which I still can’t sit through because of how intense it is. Plus, this movie features Lester Diamond in a fish-net tank-top, and if that isn’t reason enough to watch it, I don’t know what is. But hey, hey, look at me, look at me, where are you? You’re going to that place again. Look, I got investors in this, but you…YOU are gonna get yours back first.

5. DONNIE BRASCO Proving what a great actor he was before he turned to whacky makeup roles, Johnny Depp plays the real life FBI agent going undercover to try to bring down a mob gang. Al Pacino is wonderful as Lefty, the veteran mob boss who enjoys showing this “thief” the ropes, a more world-weary air than his Godfather character as he knows his life and accepts it no matter what it takes. Their odd bond forms the backbone of the movie which also showcases the harshness of the criminal world and how loyalties can only go so far as Depp and Pacino eat the screen alive to elevate this as a Mafia movie classic.

4. LITTLE CAESAR The movie that started it all. In this 1931 hit, Edward G. Robinson broke out big time as Rico, a small time crook who dreams of making it big and soon is on the rise in the criminal underworld. We see his ruthlessness and cunning as he works against his boss, soon taking over and living the high life with Robinson throwing his weight around perfectly. However, his feelings for a former friend soon cause him to lose control and set up the famous finale (“Mother of Mercy…”) and while introducing such things as gunfights and big chases, the movie also was one of the first to show off how a mob life rarely ends well for those involved.

3. THE DEPARTED Finally winning Martin Scorsese his long-overdue Oscar, this remains a brilliant movie as Leonardo DiCaprio plays a rookie cop going undercover in Jack Nicholson’s mob family while Matt Damon is Nicholson’s own mole in the cops. The various games are well done as both try to maintain their covers, going back and forth with neither realizing who the other is and Nicholson fantastic as the mobster who’s liable to go nuts and murderous at any moment. From its suave opening to its brutal end, it’s a wonderful journey that shows how dark this world is and how getting into it too deep can ruin you big time, no matter what badge you wear.

2. GOODFELLAS It still burns Dances With Wolves won the Oscar over this. The true story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and his rise and fall in the mafia, it showcases the true world of the mob: Not one of men of honor and culture but brutal thugs in better suits who celebrate their ways while scrapping to survive. Joe Pesci steals the film in his Oscar-winning turn as the loudmouthed punk proving himself while we see how the Mafia has adapted over the years but still at its heart, criminals. It’s truly eye-opening, a fantastic experience all around and showcases how, without the trappings of mythology, the mob is no noble endeavor but scum after all.

1. THE GODFATHER Talk all you want about the various films that followed but the fact is that every mob movie of the last 40 years has built off this. The 1972 masterpiece tells the tale of the Corleone Family with Marlon Brando in his justly Oscar-winning role as Vito, a man of honor in changing times but doing his best to handle it. James Caan is great as Sonny, the hot-tempered youth while Al Pacino exploded onto the scene as Michael, the younger son who was intended for better things but we soon realize was meant to be the new head of the family. From the boardrooms to the infamous lines (“Make him an offer he can’t refuse”) to brutal killings, this remains a movie that stands the test of time, still sensational all these years later and helping influence countless other films since in various ways.


List your Top Five for this week’s topic in the comment section using the following format:

5. CHOICE: Explanation
4. CHOICE: Explanation
3. CHOICE: Explanation
2. CHOICE: Explanation
1. CHOICE: Explanation