News Trending Viral Worldwide

The Many Crime Stories of Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro has appeared in virtually every sort of film imaginable but none so frequently as movies about cops, gangsters, thieves, and other criminal types. Part of what makes looking at De Niro’s crime movie work as a whole is the way it reflects his versatility as an actor. Drop him in the part of a by-the-book cop and he can give a stock character dimension and life that it might not have had on the page. His breakthrough came playing an out-of-control low-life but he’s just as skilled at depicting a life of crime as a profession like any other (with the occasional armored car robbery thrown in now and then).

Below you’ll find 15 of De Niro’s most memorable crime movies but consider the order of this list somewhat arbitrary. Of course, they’re up on top, but do you really need anyone else telling you that Goodfellas and Heat are great movies? You already know that. So read this instead as a kind of survey of De Niro’s life of crime that advances from supporting roles in ensemble pieces and low-key gems you might have mentioned through to the aforementioned landmarks.

If you’ve missed any of these, they’re all worth your time, both for De Niro’s performances and other qualities. And if you haven’t seen the towering classics in a while, consider this a reminder that they’re classics for a reason.

Cop Land Robert De Niro

Cop Land (1997)

Run Time: 116 min | IMDb: 7/10

Playing an internal affairs cop doing his best within some pretty strict limitations, De Niro’s an essential part of the sprawling ensemble assembled for James Mangold’s drama about corrupt New York cops and the New Jersey town they call home. De Niro’s narration opens the film and explains the rules of the game to Freddy Heflin (Sylvester Stallone), the hearing impaired cop who might be the key to bringing down the bad guys. By 1997 De Niro had played a dizzying array of roles but his history with movies about crime in New York — even if he more often played characters on the other side of the law — let him easily slip into the part of a frustrated honest cop grown jaded by experience but not willing to surrender. The mustache helped.

Mad Dog and Glory Robert De Niro
Universal Pictures

Mad Dog and Glory (1993)

Run Time: 97 min | IMDb: 6.2/10

Cop Land wasn’t the first movie to turn De Niro’s history of playing outlaws on its head. He’d played a bounty hunter in Midnight Run (look for that a little later on this list) and had a memorable, if brief, role in Backdraft as an arson investigator. But none played against his skills embodying tough guy gangsters quite as dramatically as this darkly comic romance in which he plays Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie, an introverted crime scene photographer who saves the life of a gangster (Bill Murray) and receives the company of the beautiful Glory (Uma Thurman) as a “gift.” Directed by John McNaughton from a script by Richard Price, it finds De Niro playing a character struggling to find the strength he bottled away years ago — and worries he might have lost for good.

A Bronx Tale
Savoy Pictures

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Run Time: 121 min | IMDb: 7.8/10

De Niro made his directorial debut with this well-observed expansion of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical coming-of-age story, which Palmintieri first staged as a one-man show. Here he plays Sonny, a neighborhood gang boss who takes a liking to the son of a local bus driver (De Niro) that effectively develops into a battle for the kid’s soul. De Niro gives himself the less flashy role and serves as the story’s moral center, but only up to a point. That his character isn’t always right, particularly about race, gives the film a richness a simpler morality tale wouldn’t have. Sometimes the devils and angels on our shoulders swap places making them hard to tell apart.

Jackie Brown Robert De Niro

Jackie Brown (1997)

Run Time: 160 min | IMDb: 7.5/10

Other stars might have been hesitant to take on supporting parts after achieving the level of acclaim and demand De Niro reached in the ’90s. And while he didn’t lack big roles in that decade, De Niro could just as often be seen showing up for a memorable scene or two in films like Marvin’s Room and Sleepers. He found one of his most memorable supporting roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction follow-up, an Elmore Leonard adaptation in which he plays a just-out-of-prison criminal who might have lost a step or two over the years (and might end up paying the price for it).

Analyze This
Warner Bros

Analyze This (1999)

Run Time: 103 min | IMDb: 6.7/10

De Niro will undoubtedly be remembered as one of his era’s greatest dramatic actors, but he’s amassed an impressive list of comedy credits over the years too (and some not-so-impressive ones, but let’s focus on the positive). Directed by Harold Ramis, Analyze This hands De Niro the plum part of a mafia don whose panic attacks lead him to seek the help of a psychiatrist (Billy Crystal). Yes, this premiered the same year as The Sopranos but the similarities end with the premise. Ramis specialized in comedies about men in crisis and that specialty — to say nothing of De Niro and Crystal’s winning rapport — serves him well here.

Universal Pictures

Casino (1995)

Run Time: 178 min | IMDb: 8.2/10

Martin Scorsese’s second collaboration with journalist and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi plays like an expansive companion piece to their first team-up, Goodfellas, with De Niro again playing a character who treats organized crime as just a more openly violent variation on American capitalism. This time it’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a buttoned-up oddsmaker given control of the Tangiers Casino by the Chicago mob. But once there he finds the casino business — even with its carefully implemented methods of security and control — offers too many x-factors for anyone to predict (including Sharon Stone as the self-destructive femme fatale with whom Rothstein falls in love). There’s a lot going on in the movie, but it’s Rothstein’s descent from a cool, calculated card shark to a whale throwing good money after bad that gives the film its shape.

cape fear

Cape Fear (1991)

Run Time: 128 min | IMDb: 7.3/10

De Niro is as much a force of nature as he is a man in Scorsese’s remake of a 1962 thriller in which he plays Max Cade, a convicted criminal hellbent on vengeance on the public defender Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) who intentionally botched his trial. Barbaric but single-minded with a brain and body honed by his years in prison, he focuses on destroying Bowden’s family by first tearing it apart. He’s like a storm, finding weak spots as he batters away, then letting the fullness of his fury burst forth.

Midnight Run
Universal Pictures

Midnight Run (1988)

Run Time: 126 min | IMDb: 7.5/10

It’s hard to get the balance right when making an action-comedy but the best make it look easy. Midnight Run works in part because almost everyone around Charles Grodin, who stars opposite De Niro as the wily on-the-lam mob accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, doesn’t play the material for laughs. De Niro’s Jack Walsh, a determinedly professional bounty hunter, is the movie’s tough guy and ultimate straight man, a character whose terse, no-nonsense attitude meets one challenge after another from a hyper-verbal, all-nonsense antagonist. De Niro never looks like he’s having fun and that’s half of what makes the movie so funny.

Mean Streets
Universal Pictures

Mean Streets (1973)

Run Time: 112 min | IMDb: 7.2/10

Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough movie does a lot to tell you who De Niro’s “Johnny Boy” is by the way it surrounds him as he enters the movie. The action slows down, the lighting turns ominous, and the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” fills the soundtrack. But it’s De Niro’s wordless work in that moment that tells viewers who he is, from the wildness in his eyes to his slouching posture as he walks with a woman on both arms. This guy is trouble. And that’s the part he plays so memorably in the film, which doubled as De Niro’s own breakthrough.

Warner Brothers

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Run Time: 251 min | IMDb: 8.3/10

Spaghetti western master Sergio Leone’s final film is a decades-spanning, elegiac mood piece about squandered opportunities and lost lives in the form of a lush gangster film. The film often asks for sympathy for the devil. De Niro’s Noodles is a romantic but also a rapist and abuser. The film ultimately plays like a long descent into hell against the backdrop of a changing America, however many layers of gauzy nostalgia Leone wraps around it.

Untouchables Robert De Niro
Universal Pictures

The Untouchables (1987)

Run Time: 119 min | IMDb: 7.9/10

De Niro’s early performances were defined by a feeling of lived-in intensity as if he were building a character from the inside out. (He told Sergio Leone he wasn’t sure about taking a part in Once Upon a Time in America because he needed a year to prepare for every role.) With The Untouchables he seemingly found a different way of working, playing the infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone as a man of grand (sometimes violent) gestures and outsized passion. It’s a big performance, but never a cartoonish one. When Capone cries at the opera he looks like a monster who’s not quite gotten rid of his human heart.


The Irishman (2019)

Run Time: 209 min | IMDb: 7.8/10

De Niro’s late-career filmography is, put charitably, a bit inconsistent in quality but the bright spots sometimes shine even brighter when surrounded by titles like The War with Grandpa. With The Irishman, however, he found the sort of autumnal role that had eluded him for much of the ’00s and ’10s, reuniting with Martin Scorsese for the story of Frank Sheeran, who claimed (somewhat questionably) to have been the mob hitman who killed Jimmy Hoffa. The facts matter less, however than the film’s depiction as a man who, only at the end, sees how hollowed-out his existence has become by a life of violence in the service of powerful men. The film offers a sweeping alternate history of decades of American history in high Scorsese style, but it’s the gutting, funereal final stretch that makes it extraordinary.


The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Run Time: 202 min | IMDb: 9/10

For Francis Ford Coppola’s sequel to The Godfather, De Niro had the unenviable task of playing a role originated by Marlon Brando. De Niro makes some nods to Brando’s work with his mannerisms and delivery, but his performance never feels like an impersonation. It’s a portrait of the don as a young man, an origin story whose golden hues serve as an ironic contrast to its bloodshed and the knowledge that all of Vito Corleone’s dreams will disappear and his rise will lead to his family’s fall.


Goodfellas (1990)

Run Time: 146 min | IMDb: 8.7/10

De Niro’s Jimmy “The Gent” Conway is rarely the focus of Scorsese’s gangland epic and that fits both the character and De Niro’s approach to the role. De Niro plays Conway as a man who stays alive by staying quiet and keeping cool, content largely to remain in the background while his flashier companions live the high life. It’s not a flashy performance and that’s the point. He’s a man who understands the system and, ultimately, a man who will do whatever it takes to keep the system from breaking down.

Warner Brothers

Heat (1995)

Run Time: 170 min | IMDb: 8.3/10

With Michael Mann’s Heat De Niro found an opportunity to expand on the idea of a criminal whose identity mirrors his occupation as Neil McCauley, a thief whose commitment to avoiding attachment approaches zen-like extremes. His code is simple: “allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner” and the cool detachment of De Niro’s performance — one deepened by its flickers of passion and regret — perfectly match Mann’s filmmaking style. It’s an instance of a director and star being locked into their material to an almost scary degree. And, really, that could just as easily be said of everyone else in the cast from co-star Al Pacino on down, but it’s De Niro’s work that gives the film its haunted heart.