The 10 Greatest London-Set Gangster Movies

It has become very easy to mock London-set gangster films in the post-Guy Ritchie era, with their mockney caricatures and hyper visuals, but they’re the bread a

The 10 Greatest London Set Gangster Movies

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The 10 Greatest London Set Gangster Movies

In the UK, the gangster film is basically an institution, like the cowboy film in America.

Some of the very best films to be made and set in this country are gangster films and the genre has always been a favourite of straight-to-DVD producers, as it seems like there’s at least two new British crime capers out every week, all of them starring Danny Dyer or Frank Harper. However, it isn’t just the capital city that plays home to the gangster film, locations up and down the country have been used to tell a crime story. Famously, Get Carter is set in Newcastle, crime comedy The 51st State is set in Liverpool and Brighton Rock is set in, well, Brighton. But London Town is the rightful home of the British gangster flick and has some fantastic stories to tell. 

It’s become very easy to mock London-set gangster films in the post-Guy Ritchie era, with their mockney caricatures and hyper visuals, but they’re the bread and butter of the UK film industry and offer a great insight into the workings of our capital city. Here are 10 of the best.

Performance (1970)

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To a modern audience, Performance is a very different kind of gangster film. Starring Mick Jagger, it’s an exhibition of sleaze, darkness and brutality as two men—one a gangster, the other a rock star—bond over the similarities of their trades. It’s an experimental piece of art, dealing in explicit drug use, and its sense of homoeroticism sent the censors into a panic as it was the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. The first half of the film is a trip into the underworld through the eyes of the gangster, and there’s an overwhelming feeling of desensitised antipathy and amorality.

Performance isn’t accessible in the way Guy Ritchie’s films are, nor does it possess many of the other attributes you associate with the gangster genre, but Performance isn’t easy to forget as it explores London’s underbelly, the nature of fame (in a somewhat meta way, thanks to the casting of Jagger) and the internal search for identity.

The Long Good Friday (1980)

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Much has been said in recent years about how The Long Good Friday predicted the future, and that’s impossible to deny. From the development of the docklands into a commercial juggernaut to the careless Conservatism of Thatcher and Cameron to the Little Englander bigotry of Nigel Farage, The Long Good Friday plotted the future with scary accuracy. All this almost didn’t even make it into the film, as it was originally intended for television and producers sought to dilute the politics and tone down the violence.

Very much a tour of the London underworld before the drastic developments, the film is defined by what we don’t see as much as by what we do. There are few high-rise flats and we see the former home of News International before it was knocked down for redevelopment. We also see the famous St. George in the East church, the location where Bob Hoskins’ Harold first figures out that something has gone badly wrong. It’s almost eerie to watch London on film looking like a ghost town compared to what it is now: a behemoth of finance, and perhaps an even more oppressive city than it was back then.

Mona Lisa (1986)

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Starring Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine, as a recently out-of-prison small-time gangster and an underworld boss respectively, Mona Lisa explores decency and violence in an irredeemably corrupt world. Both of the main male characters are more than capable of explosive violence, but Hoskins’ character’s soft side begins to emerge as he is ordered to be the driver of a beautiful call-girl played by Cathy Tyson. They try and manipulate each other to their own end and search for something that will give them happiness.

Hoskins’ crook is fundamentally a misfit: his clothes don’t fit quite right, he has a soft facial expression and frequently looks like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world—but he falls head over heels for Simone, the call-girl. He finds a purpose when she orders him to find an old friend who she believes is the sex slave of a brutal pimp. Caine is at his best when asked to be evil and creepy and he has rarely been more evil or creepy than he is in Mona Lisa—a haunting, atmospheric masterpiece.

The Krays (1990)

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There has been something of a Kray Twins revival recently with the Tom Hardy-starring biopic Legend hitting cinemas last year and a number of other titles such as Rise of the Krays and The Fall of the Krays appearing in supermarket bargain bins everywhere. But nothing has matched the quiet bleakness of The Krays. Perfectly cast as twins Ronnie and Reggie are the Kemp brothers, fresh out of Spandau Ballet and looking to establish acting careers. Neither became acting stars (though Martin was in Eastenders for years) but this was a film they were born for.

Not much interested in the so-called glamour of crime and romanticising the terrible twins, The Krays focuses on their relationship with their beloved mother who doted all over them and was seemingly oblivious to the many horrible crimes they committed. The twins still cast a shadow over London as near myth-like figures, as proved by the large amount of interest still vested in them half a century later, but The Krays plays as a domestic drama, which tries to get under the skin of the twin killers.

Face (1997)

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Written by former IRA member and Top Boy creator Ronan Bennett, Face is a nice companion piece to The Long Good Friday. Shot just as Tony Blair was rising to power, it explores the lack of choice poor men face as they’re left with nothing but the scraps of Thatcherite Britain, and the ‘every man for himself’ mentality purported by Conservatism is explored through a series of betrayals and double crosses. It’s one of the more politically astute gangster films and brilliantly juxtaposes the violent acts of the men with those of the police during demonstrations and strikes during the 1908s, which many of the characters were on the wrong end of. Boasting a brilliant cast comprised of Robert Carlyse, Ray Winstone, Phil Davis, Lena Headey, Sue Johnston and Blur frontman Damon Albarn, Face is the great British gangster film that went under the radar. More difficult and politicised than most, it is the late director Antonia Bird’s finest film and should be considered a classic.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

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Snatch may be the more complete film but Lock Stock... exploded Guy Ritchie onto the scene and birthed a new era of British gangster films. With a convoluted plot that involves a rigged card game, some stolen antique guns and the least streetwise marijuana dealers you’ve ever seen, Lock Stock is a ride that has had a hundred imitators that have never come close to matching the wit and enjoyment of Ritchie’s debut.

Introducing the cinema world to The Stath, Vinnie Jones and bare-knuckle boxing legend Lenny McClean, Lock Stock is London’s wink to Pulp Fiction and gives us a tour of the shadier parts of the city’s streets. The film also has a great sense of comedy, from ironic subtitles to the slapstick sight of a man running out of a pub on fire in front of our protagonists who shrug and enter the pub anyway. Most crime films set in London over the last fifteen years owe some kind of debt to Ritchie and his first film.

Gangster No. 1 (2000)

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Released in the same year as Sexy Beast (which can’t make this list due to being primarily set in Spain), Gangster No.1 is equally violent, frightening, and has an undercurrent that is deeply sinister. Set across three decades, the story involves a rise to power, a betrayal, and the chickens ultimately coming home to roost. The film has a great sense of London: during the scenes set in the ‘60s, the period detail is exquisite without being nostalgic, and Soho is fully realised in all its sleazy truth.

Starring the devilishly handsome Paul Bettany in a Michael Caine-esque role as the titular top dog, he reaches Tony Montana levels of envy and fury, and the film acts as a nice antidote to the breezy fair populated by Guy Ritchie. It is one of the very nastiest gangster films; the violence is explicit and staggering in its cruelty, and the life of crime is portrayed as nothing more than endless misery and chaos.

Layer Cake (2004)

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Daniel Craig’s successful audition for James Bond (there is actually a scene where he edges around a corner with a pistol in hand) is an incredibly smart film that looks at the power structure of the London underworld, how the criminalisation of drugs has created mass wealth for dealers, and the interlocking between street-level figures and those in high society positions. Craig’s nameless cockney Pablo Escobar is looking to get out of the dope world with his body and bank account intact but is strong-armed into one last risky deal involving an obscene amount of ecstasy stolen from Serbian Neo-Nazis and he realises being smart might not be quite enough to survive on the streets. An intricate plot of duplicity and twists, Layer Cake is also stylish, clever, and achieves the bold ambition of detailing the varying social classes in crime. There’s millionaires, country club geezers, middle men, pushers, addicts and wannabe gangsters, and it’s all a blast!

Eastern Promises (2007)

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The tone is set early on in Eastern Promises as the opening scene features the bloody murder of a woman in a pharmacy and from there, we enter the rabbit hole and dive deep into the world of the Russian Mafia, who have migrated to London and are based out of a restaurant. Written by Steven Knight—who tackled the brutal realities of immigrant life in Dirty Pretty Things, and also created the period gang tales of Peaky Blinders—here, he offers an incredibly detailed account of Russian Mafia life, right down to their unique tattoos which are displayed in great specificity. 

Eastern Promises offers something very different to the genre, in the sense that it barely features a character born in the city and exhibits violence in a graphically realised manner similar to director David Cronenberg’s horror movies of the ‘70s. In a film that seems so straightforward in terms of plotting, there’s a huge twist near the end that makes us realise this is far from an ordinary gangster film.

RocknRolla (2008)

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Guy Ritchie’s return to the British gangster film after two flops was much welcomed. Whilst maintaining the same ingredients that made his early films a favourite with the British public, over his decade as a filmmaker Ritchie had matured his style and searched for substance under all the style. What he comes up with is a comedy thriller involving dodgy accounts, even dodgier Russian gangsters and the most inept motley crew of small-time crooks you’re ever likely to stumble across.

Much of the film deals with the ever-changing landscape of London and how globalisation and globalised crime has affected the capital for better and worse. The old-school thugs (played here by Tom Wilkinson) are losing their grip on power as a more refined class of criminal starts to take over and push the old guard in the direction of the graveyard. Like all of Ritchie’s gangster films, RocknRolla also boasts a rocking soundtrack and makes stars out of its supporting cast.

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