The 12 Most Underrated Mafia Movies of All Time


A mafia movie perfectly encapsulates the best elements of different genres, like action, drama, thriller, or even romance, before presenting them within the framework of life on the other side of the law. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, as Hollywood’s romance with mafia movies goes way back to the ’40s and ’50s, where noir movies dominated the majority of releases, before finally culminating into a different sub-genre in itself.

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Due to the fact that most audiences are law-abiding citizens, mafia movies have a strangling allure and pull to them, as they offer a peak into a life that burns bright and fast. As seen in many gangster classics like Coppola’s The Godfather and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, life in the fast lane might be appealing from afar, but once entered, it will take one into deep waters and drown them, giving complete meaning to the age-old adage: “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.”

Updated on May 21, 2024: If you are a fan of mafia and mob movies and are eager to discover underrated gems, then you will be happy to know that this article has been updated by Samuel Cormier with more content.

12 Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Susanna White’s 2016 film Our Kind of Traitor is adapted from John le Carré’s novel of the same name. Unlike most of Carré’s work that’s experienced and proper, this novel features an offbeat professor, Perry MacKendrick, at the helm of things. Portrayed by Ewan McGregor, he goes on a vacation with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) in an attempt to save their marriage. However, after a fortuitous meeting with a mysterious man named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), he finds himself responsible for negotiating an intense standoff between the MI6 and a band of Russian gangsters.

Our Kind of Traitor Is a Great Mafia Movie For Newcomers

Told with the aloofness of a novice spy, Our Kind of Traitor provides a fresh change from the author’s tone, as it has a mixed bag of emotions ranging from sarcasm to absurdity. With that said, the film manages to retain the novel’s ethos and perspective on the genre, making for a great entry into mafia movies for newcomers. The film also features smart cinematographic choices that enhance the unfortunateness of the situations that the characters find themselves in, such as the Dutch angle.

11 The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle counts the misadventures of a lowly Irish mob arms dealer, the titular Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), as he is forced to become a police informant to avoid a lifetime of imprisonment and must rely on his colleagues and friends to avoid being uncovered. One small problem, however: he has absolutely nobody that he can count on, and risks ending up being a simple collateral victim to his own group or rival gangs.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle Is a Gritty Mafia Movie

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a no-nonsense mafia movie. No romanticizing, just the true grittiness that is usually present in this line of work. Actually, it was not popular at the time of its release, probably for those reasons; it just could not compete the attractive glitz and glam of The Godfather. Today, it is praised for its direct storytelling, portraying the inner thoughts of a lonely man (not unlike Travis from Taxi Driver), and impeccably crafted cinematography.

10 New Jack City (1991)

When Ice-T portrayed the role of a cop in New Jack City, it came as quite a surprise, since the rapper’s songs often highlighted his dislike for men in uniform. However, when finding out the plot, this casting decision makes a lot more sense: Scotty Appleton (Ice-T), a NYPD detective, decides to finally end the reign of crack lord Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes), who has profited off the struggles of the African-American community for too long.

New Jack City Is a Culturally Significant Classic

Regarded as a work of cultural significance, Mario Van Peebles’ debut feature highlights the ill-treatment of the African American community, a theme surprisingly usually forgotten in gangster movies. Stylistically, it is heavily influenced by classic gangster movies like Scarface and The Godfather, borrowing from the greats while still keeping a personal flair. Both the compelling story and filmography have made New Jack City evolve into somewhat of a classic overtime.

9 The Outfit (2022)

Graham Moore’s The Outfit provides a fresh perspective on the mafia genre by exploring the interpersonal dynamics between members of the mafia and the people who they bully into extortion. Taking place in Illinois in the ’50s, the plot follows a lonely British tailor, Leonard Burning (Mark Rylance), who must use his wits to outsmart a group of warring Irish gangs that want to use his shop to stash a mallet with unknown contents. The title The Outfit does not reference the main character’s career, the nationwide intelligence syndicate founded by Al Capone.

The Outfit Is a Modern Mafia Classic

A film that holds its cards close to its chest, The Outfit has a rich and complex array of characters that speak less than they know and have more than they show. Both old-school and new fans can enjoy the paced action, sober sets and colors, and Rylance’s incredible acting performance. It is indisputable proof that the gangster movie genre has not run dry, and can still be explored today by daring filmmakers.

8 Sonatine (1993)

Dubbed by many as the true successor to the great Japanese gangster film director Akira Kurosawa, Sonatine was written, directed, edited, and starred Takeshi Kitano as a stoic, stone-faced machiavellian yakuza enforcer, Murakawa. While at the end of his career, he is sent alongside a contingent of subordinates to Okinawa to resolve local gang conflicts. However, once they get there, they realize that the situation is much more dire and dangerous than they initially expected.

Sonatine Is a Hidden Gem

If Sonatine was all the rage in Japan when it came out, it initially didn’t have much of an audience in America. However, with the growing interest in Asian and particularly Japanese culture in the past decade or so, the film was uncovered by overseas audiences as a hidden gem. Sonatine is a stylish, violent, and unapologetic bloodfest that brilliantly deconstructs the Yakuza genre with a scalpel or brutality before presenting its bare portrait to the audience.

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7 Layer Cake (2004)

Layer Cake

Release Date
June 3, 2005

Runtime
105 Minutes

Layer Cake has come to be known as “the” film that propelled director Matthew Vaughn and actor Daniel Craig to worldwide stardom. Most will probably see an unofficial first James Bond for Craig in this movie, as he plays on the other side of the law as an unnamed Londonian cocaine trader who encounters issues on his last mission before leaving the criminal world for good. The playful title refers to the social hierarchy of the British mob.

Layer Cake Is Filled with Charm

Vaughn’s crime comedy is cut from the same fabric as Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, and is a hazy maze of stolen drugs, scary hitmen, and dreamy retirement plans. The film plays out as a dizzying drug-induced trip that deftly manages to make sense of a somewhat slurry narrative, with a large dollop of charm and charisma and some great performances from Daniel Craig and Tom Hardy. A film where every rewatch will bring forth a new piece of the puzzle.

6 Bound (1996)

Bound

Release Date
September 13, 1996

Runtime
108

Bound is the often lesser-known debut of the Wachowski sisters as writers and directors. In it, Corky (Gina Gershon) is a butchy ex-con hired to flip an apartment after its renter disappeared. Next door live Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), a money launderer for the mafia, and his elegant mob wife Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Corky and Violet soon start a torrid love affair, and make a plan to steal $2 million that will be in Ceasar’s home in the next few days. Will they manage to outsmart the mob and keep their love under wraps long enough?

Bound Is a Suspenseful Mafia Movie

Bound does not avoid violence and gore to the profit of the central lesbian romance. Rather, it enhances it, in order to bring out the truly rare fact that love can blossom in the midst of such horrors. The style is a perfect halfway-point between mob thrillers and slightly voyeuristic, sultry romances — with Tilly even getting the “Morticia Adams lighting treatment” at times. The film has long been admired for its suspenseful story with impressive acting performances, and for being one of the first mainstream films to depict a woman-on-woman love story as its central plot point.

5 A Better Tomorrow (1986)

In the West, Yun-Fat might be better known for his work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, but in the East, he’s a bona fide movie star. Having frequently collaborated with Woo during the ’80s and ’90s, the actor-director duo was hailed as a deadly combination in the action movie genre, responsible for films like The Killer and Hard Boiled. A Better Tomorrow was truly Yun-Fat’s breakout role, where he plays the legendary Mark Lee, best friend and bodyguard of Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Lung), a powerful member of the Hong-Kong Triad who is willing to go to lengths of danger and apologies to reconcile with his policeman brother, Sung Tse Kit (Leslie Cheung).

A Better Tomorrow Influenced Cinema

Like most of Woo’s work, A Better Tomorrow works on the same narrative ethos of cops and crime, with an abundance of unrelenting violence, ranging from savage beat-downs to eardrum-piercing gunfights and everything in between. The film saw a sequel, a prequel, and several remakes. This landmark film is recognized to have had a notable influence on both Hong Kong cinema and Hollywood itself.

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4 The Highwaymen (2019)

Most are very familiar with the escapades of outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, as they daringly robbed banks and shot whoever came in their way. Telling the story from the opposing angle, John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen revolves around the true story of Texas Rangers Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) as they come out of retirement to apprehend the star-crossed lovers.

The Highwaymen Isn’t Just Another Bonnie and Clyde Movie

Despite not being an outright mafia movie, The Highwaymen incorporates themes of violence and bloodshed in a fashion that’s quite similar to the mafia genre, making it a criminally underrated gangster film that’s not seen by many people, but revered by all those who have. The film makes sure to deny any romanticizing of the criminal couple, even making Bonnie and Clyde only shown as cameos by Emily Brobst and Edward Bossert.

3 Kill the Irishman (2011)

Kill the Irishman

Release Date
March 10, 2011

Director
Jonathan Hensleigh

Runtime
106

Led by an ensemble cast of Hollywood heavyweights in Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, and Vincent D’Onofrio, Kill the Irishman is based on the life of Irish-American gangster Danny Greene. The film throws light on blue-collar-worker-turned-criminal Greene’s decision to ignite a turf war in the ’70s. His efforts to fight Italian mobsters led to many assassination attempts, and other events that would eventually lead to the collapse of the Italian mafia in several U.S. cities.

Kill the Irishman Is Smartly Written

It was a shame that Kill the Irishmanbombed at the box office, because it tells a story so full of twists and turns that it is hard to believe it is real — but it is. This film also encountered a number of issues in pre-production, ending up being made 10 years after its idea came up and with a much smaller budget than planned. Nonetheless, Stevenson does a great job at portraying the straight-to-the-point, unemotional Greene. A very smartly written ethnicity war rages as Irish, Italian, and even Polish people can all become the butt of a joke following the great 20th century exodus to America.

2 Legend (2015)

Powered by a dual engine of Tom Hardy in double roles, Brian Helgeland’s simply-titled Legend serves as a masterclass in acting and characterization, as Hardy plays the role of identical real-life gangster twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray. This romanticized biopic spans from their beginnings doing crime together, to their prolific and gruesome career, and up until their life imprisonment in 1969. Most elements of the story are based off John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins.

Legend Is Redefining the Genre

Tom Hardy could have easily fallen for the trap of overly caricaturing the two characters, but he portrays each twin with an independent set of characteristics, breathing a new life into the narrative. It is a true tour-de-force achieved by the often undermined actor, who rises to the heights of other such roles in other genres, like Jesse Eiseinberg in The Double, or Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. As far as style and pacing go, the movie has very few flaws, and promises to be a gangster film that will help redefine the genre in coming years.

1 City of God (2002)

Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s famous Brazilian film churns with furious energy as it plunges the viewer straight into the dirty favelas of Brazil between the 1960s and 1980s. City of God charts the story of two brothers who grow up to find themselves on different sides of the law, while one becomes an established photographer, the other turns into a dreaded gangster. The pair attempt to keep their brotherly love as they grow apart. The title of the film gets its name from a poor suburb of Rio de Janeiro, and the events are loosely based on reality.

City of God Focuses on the Loss of Innocence

City of God is so well-made, that more often than not, it feels like a documentary. The viewer feels drawn into this world of violence, trying very hard to empathize with those children who have few other choices than to turn to gangs. A raw and breathtaking portrait of the loss of innocence along with the retention of it. The film was a surprising box-office success, as foreign films, especially those picturing typically local stories, rarely reach this point. The TV show City of Men was created by the same directors and with a similar premise, even sharing a few actors.



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