The Top 10 Matinee Mob Men in Movie History

by Bill Gibron

26 March 2013


5 - 1

#5 - Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing

Few outside the arthouse has seen the work of this fine Irish actor. He was usually stuck in supporting roles or obscure foreign projects. Then came this Coen Brothers masterpiece, and the rest is a significant cinematic career. Few would think of Byrne as the brains behind Albert Finney’s mob boss - but then again, who pegged Tom Jones as a ruthless ruling racketeer. That was part of the Coens’ brilliance -casting against preconception to show talent, not typecasting. Byrne was amazing here, and the rest of the movie is as well.

#4 - John Travolta in Pulp Fiction

It’s interesting that Travolta, the star of such ‘70s staples as Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Urban Cowboy, would end up working with Quentin Tarantino. The fast-talking filmmaker always believed that the former superstar was ready for a mid ‘90s comeback. Problem was, he had to convince the studios of the same thing. Luckily, his free reign with the Weinsteins meant QT could more or less cast who he wanted. As a heroin addicted hitman, the man known for his fast feet became recognized for what he always was, one helluva fine actor.

#3 - James Cagney in The Public Enemy

The famous Golden Era gangster, whose films launched a myriad of lousy longue singer impressions (“You dirty rat”) actually got his start as a dancer. He even traveled the vaudeville circuit with his future wife. However, once he appeared as Tom Powers in this 1931 classic (and later, as Arthur “Cody Jarrett in 1949’s White Heat) he was always considered a baddie. Of course, this omits his Oscar winning turn as George M. Cohan in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy. In fact, Cagney’s range was infinite. Being convincingly criminal was just a byproduct of his incredible talent.

#2 - Lawrence Tierney in Reservoir Dogs

As Joe Cabot, the leader of a gang of highly trained thieves, Tierney exudes mean. He’s like a nuclear weapon ready to explode at the slightest sign of disrespect. Oddly enough, he didn’t start his career as a tough guy. He did some catalog modeling for Sears Roebuck and was featured in several B-movies before landing the role of legendary criminal John Dillinger in the movie of the same name. Later on, when his personal troubles took their toll, he hit the stage, and then exile in France. This film proves he was, and remains, a great heavy.

#1 - Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer

Though he had been in several significant Hong Kong films before he connected with action auteur John Woo, Chow found his calling with this breakout effort, a stirring example of bullet ballet and brazen melodramatics. As an assassin who accidentally blinds a young female singer (and then spends the rest of the movie trying to make the money to pay for a curative operation), the actor was never more suave, never more sinister. The last act shoot-out in a church remains of the highlights in this icon’s memorable movie canon.

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