Top British Crime Films Since the 1970s

Layer Cake Daniel Craig, George Harris top british crime films

The United Kingdom has rich culture, with many of the world's finest gardens, castles, and universities. At the same time, it nourishes a parallel history of criminal mayhem and loutishness — probably dating as far back as the Druids.

With these two overlapping traditions — the snobs and the scumbags — Britain had a great position to excel at crime cinema, which often involves an interplay of stratified worlds.

Find below a list of some of the top British crime films to come out of the last half-century.

Mona Lisa (1986)

Mona Lisa Sammi Davis
Image Credit: Cannon Screen Entertainment.

Bob Hoskins plays his most criminally complex role in Mona Lisa, a 1986 neo-noir directed by Neil Jordan. His pit bull-like character, George, struggles to regain his foothold after returning to society. His ex-wife won't let his daughter speak to him, and — what's worse — after doing everything right and going to jail, the low-life universe he inhabits fails to reward him. Instead, George receives the stinging assignment of chauffeur-to-prostitute. A deeply felt movie ensues about unrequited love and how some people tend to draw the short straw in life. The thriller will transport the viewer to the seedy side of '80s London. Mona Lisa might be the best British crime film ever made; certainly, it's the most emotionally satisfying.

The Hit (1984)

The Hit Terence Stamp
Image Credit: Palace Pictures.

Terence Stamp gives one of the best performances of his career as Willie Parker, the relaxed gangster kidnapped in the 1984 film The Hit. Parker, who a decade earlier turned state's evidence against his pals, lives life peacefully in Spain when his pursuers finally catch up with him. The movie plays as a road-trip film in a sense, and John Hurt and Tim Roth play the thugs sent to accompany the stoolie to the gangster he betrayed. It's a movie set in the desert and full of anxious people, with only the cool-as-ice Parker to keep things comfortable. Not much else equals it in the annals of British crime cinema. The Hit very much deserves a watch.

Sitting Target (1972)

Sitting Target Jill St. John, Ian McShane
Image Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

“You are looking at an animal,” reads the poster for Sitting Target, showing the actor Oliver Reed pointing a gun between prison bars. “A woman is his target,” the poster continues. “No cage can hold his lust for revenge.” This sets the stage for Sitting Target, which opens with an act of attempted violence so astonishing that it justifies the advert's harsh verdict. Reed's Harry Lomart is a bad guy, but that doesn't mean he bores an audience in this underappreciated '70s thriller.

The Long Good Friday (1980)

The Long Good Friday
Image Credit: HandMade Films.

Many people will know Bob Hoskins as the detective from 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In the decade leading up to that, Hoskins played parts on the other side of the law, perfecting a kind of angry little criminal filled with raw nerves and coiled energy. The Long Good Friday follows the fall of one such criminal on the cusp of establishing an empire. It has political elements too, with an Irish Republican Army (IRA)-infused plot. Pierce Brosnan even makes his debut, playing an IRA assassin. It's one of the best early '80s crime movies from anywhere, and Hoskins gives a performance second only to his role in Mona Lisa.

Sexy Beast (2000)

Sexy Beast Ben Kingsley
Image Credit: Fox Searchlight Picture.

Ray Winstone stars opposite Ben Kingsley and Ian McShane in this sun-drenched, slow-burn of a crime drama. Winstone and pal Cavan Kendall begin the story as gangster retirees enjoying a bone-idle lifestyle on the Spanish coast with their molls. Kingsley begins to announce his presence as the story progresses, making increasingly frightening attempts to cajole Winstone back for “one last job.” The sandblasted orange hills of Spain, with their cloudless blue backdrops, go easy on the eyes, and anyone can understand why Winstone wants to remain there. Kingsley brings tension and menace to these environs, setting off an intense chain of reactions. In part, Sexy Beast derives its energy from the dread of ending a vacation.

Layer Cake (2004)

Layer Cake
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Director Matthew Vaughn made his 2004 debut with an adaptation of the crime novel Layer Cake, starring Daniel Craig, before his pivot to comic book movies in the 2010s. Before directing, Vaughn produced several of Guy Ritchie's early works. Layer Cake casts Craig as a gentleman drug dealer on the verge of retirement who gets sucked into a plan to track down a crime boss' runaway daughter. Tom Hardy makes an early-career appearance as Craig's business partner, while Sienna Miller plays the female lead. It's a slick and well-structured example of the crime-comedy style pioneered by Richie.

In Bruges (2008)

In Bruges Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Martin McDonagh, the director of Best Picture-nominee The Banshees of Inisherin, first caught the eye of American audiences with In Bruges in 2008. The film follows criminal duo Colin Farrel and Brendan Gleeson as they hide out amid the gothic spires of Bruges, Belgium after a contract killing gone off the rails back home. The duo's antagonist, Ralph Fiennes, plays the kind of snarling crime boss often seen in British films like Sexy Beast. While In Bruges is technically a U.K.-U.S. co-production, little about the chilly Belgian city of the title or the anxious Brits on screen will make one think of America.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Image Credit: Summit Entertainment.

Twenty-five years later, can everyone admit that Guy Ritchie's debut — Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — qualifies as his best movie by some distance? The late 90s soundtrack, full of reggae and electronica, brings the viewer back to a simpler time when the fast-talking antics of onscreen cockney hustlers did not yet grate and when Jason Statham had not yet worn out his welcome behind the wheel. 

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen
Image Credit: Focus Features.

Seeing a David Cronenberg movie on this list might come as a surprise, but despite the director's Canadian nationality, his film Eastern Promises is a U.K.-Canada co-production set entirely in London — or at least in Londongrad. Eastern Promises, which stars Viggo Mortenson and Naomi Watts, tells the story of a Russian mafia family's attempt to cover up its sordid role in the death of a young woman during childbirth. Watts, who plays a midwife, tries to determine what led to the tragedy with the help of the deceased's diary. While not an example of the Cronenberg body horror genre, Eastern Promises has all the hallmarks of the director's style and resembles his film A History of Violence. The two movies would make for a wonderfully disturbing double feature.

Snatch (2000)

Snatch Ade, Robbie Gee, Lennie James
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing.

Guy Ritchie's famous film from the turn of the century features Brad Pitt as an itinerant bare-knuckle boxer, Jason Statham as his mob-indebted promoter, along with an ensemble of Ritchie regulars who round out what is probably the best Pulp Fiction knockoff out there. Snatch makes for an entertaining evening. It also offers a helpful reminder not to mess with anyone who owns a pig farm.

Get Carter (1971) top British crime films

Get Carter Michael Caine, Petra Markham
Image Credit: MGM-EMI Distributors.

Michael Caine stars in this classic revenge drama as Jack Carter, a London-based gangster back home up north to hunt for the people who killed his brother. Filmed around Newcastle, Get Carter captures the industrial grit of North East England in the 1970s. With its naturalistic cinematography, the movie has more of a documentary feel than similar titles of the era, and Caine has said he based his performance in part on criminal acquaintances. The reputation of Get Carter has grown over the years, with Quentin Tarantino even calling it his favorite British film.

Performance (1970)

Performance Mick Jagger
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Nicholas Roeg's psychedelic 1970 crime drama, Performance, which features Mick Jagger in a supporting role as more or less himself, is less satisfying as an underworld film than as an avante-garde artifact of its time. Roeg's signature editing style is quick with inserts and other jarring flashes of unrelated imagery; the techniques draw attention to themselves but in a fascinating way. (They reach an apotheosis in a love scene from his other classic from a few years later, Don't Look Now.) Jagger is at the height of his youthful beauty in Performance, and that should provide enough reason to keep many viewers rapt. However,  the film conceals a compelling clash of worldviews, which plays out between the gangster lead (James Fox) and the rockstar Jagger.

Author: Tim Rinaldi


Tim Rinaldi is a journalist who spent his youth inside a video game console, occasionally emerging to read novels and watch films. After earning his degree in Literature from Fordham University, he moved to China over a decade ago to teach English and learn the language, eventually migrating to Taiwan. There, he served as an editor at the nation’s primary English-language daily, Taiwan News, contributing to coverage spanning the arts, business, finance, Chinese politics, and cross-strait relations. Today, Tim is a freelance writer reporting on entertainment, personal finance, and other topics. In his spare time, he tinkers with 3D software like Blender and aspires to craft animated short films.