Most Realistically Skillful Movie Criminals of All Time, Ranked

This article contains spoilers for Gone Girl and The Usual Suspects.When movies dive into crime-centric storylines, there is a lot that could go wrong. The cases can be too unbelievable, the characters’ motivations lacking, and the levels of violence intensified without any good reason. However, when a film gets the balance right, it can create stories that are intriguing many years later.

At the beginning of the genre, the protagonists were the good guys, and the audience had no confusion about who they should root for. However, as time progressed and characters became more complex, antiheroes became protagonists, and audiences often rooted for the criminals.

Making morally ambiguous characters a film’s protagonist has become commonplace for screenwriters and filmmakers, and, even understanding that a character has done illegal and sometimes despicable things, the viewer is able to enjoy a well-crafted character, especially a criminal. There’s nothing quite like an extremely smart criminal in a film; if someone is able to devise a master plan and fool everybody, you kind of want them to get away with it.

Here are some of the most realistic and skilled criminals in movie history.


9 Frank Abagnale Jr. – Catch Me If You Can

DreamWorks Pictures

It is important not to forget the white-collar criminals and their crimes, which don’t involve violent elements, but do have a lot of deceiving and robbing. Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Catch Me If You Can runs away from home and starts faking checks to travel and stay in hotels. This obviously quickly escalates to creating fake identities (doctor, pilot, etc.).

Related: Catch Me If You Can at 20: Exploring Spielberg’s True Story

The movie was based on a true story. However, recent investigations may point to most of the “true story element” as actually a great hoax by Abagnale. Nevertheless, the character was extremely skillful and realistic in how he managed what he wanted.

8 Danny Ocean – Ocean’s Eleven

Ocean's Eleven
Warner Bros. Pictures

Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is the head, alongside Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), of Ocean’s Eleven and the entire franchise. He is charming, intelligent, and cunning, and has a clear understanding of what his skills are and when he needs to call for help.

Danny is the perfect leader for a group of criminals, and he uses every leverage he has to achieve his million-dollar goal. And while some may suggest that the heist genre is over the top and completely unbelievable (there are some parts that are obviously fiction), there are various real-life stories, that are grander than any of this team’s extravagant robberies.

7 Tony le Stéphanois – Rififi


Rififi is a French noir classic that is considered to be one of the best movies leading up to the French New Wave. The heist film, considered a precursor of the subgenre which would explode in popularity in later decades, was directed by the American auteur Jules Dassin after being blacklisted and moving to France to continue his career.

The world of the gangster is certainly romanticized with this gorgeous crime film that’s ultimately unsparing in its fatalistic depiction of crime not paying. Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), the protagonist, is an ex-con who served time for a jewel heist. Tony and his team create an ingenious plan to get inside a jewel store and crack the safe. The movie has the audience on the edge of their seat in a 33-minute scene of the cracking of the safe.

6 Amy Dunne – Gone Girl

Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
20th Century Fox

As anyone who has watched a few movies or television series knows, getting away with murder is not an easy feat. But framing someone for murder can be actually easier — if done right. In Gone Girl, David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) is not only capable of disappearing without leaving a trace but also convincingly frames her husband for her murder.

The movie does explain to a certain level of detail how she did everything: created a debt on their shared accounts, got her blood and cleaned it up (badly), etc. Dunne is a lot of things, and being a skillful psychopath is one of her top characteristics.

5 Neil McCauley – Heat

Kilmer and De Niro in Heat shootout
Warner Bros.

Heat will always be praised as the first time Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino worked together, even if they’re only on-screen together for less than an eighth of the film. However, the movie should be remembered for its convincing criminal. The lead of a gang of robbers, Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro) is nothing short of being at the top of his game.

The bank robbery was inspired by real-life events as well as DeNiro and Pacino’s characters. He is highly skilled and has goals that match his abilities: steal 12 million dollars and escape LA. He also reflects the quality that ultimately dooms many of the smartest criminals — ego.

4 Jack Carter – Get Carter

Michael Caine in Get Carter
MGM-EMI Distributors

Get Carter is a British cult classic gained its devoted following years after being released when great directors such as Quentin Tarantino expressed his appreciation for the gangster film. This film has an almost documentary approach to the narrative (a genre not unknown to the director, Mike Hodges).

Related: The Best British Gangster Movies, Ranked

In fact, the great Michael Caine, who portrays Jack Carter, was as impressed by the realism of the script as the audience – as he actually knew a few gangsters growing up. There is no doubt how skillful Carter is, and he is different from how gangsters were portrayed in movies at the time.

3 Keyser Söze – The Usual Suspects

Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects
Gramercy Pictures

There is no shortage of interesting criminal characters in The Usual Suspects. However, Keyser Söze (Kevin Spacey), the criminal mastermind, takes the lead as the most skillful one. There is a lot of mystery surrounding this character, enhancing how compelling it is to watch this story and try to figure out his identity. Söze manipulates all these criminal minds in order to get what he wants, and he ultimately succeeds. The character was based on a real case and a killer named John List.

2 Michael Corleone – The Godfather

Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II
Paramount Pictures

If there is one thing no one can say about Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), it is that he isn’t skillful at his job. In only 24 hours, Michael was able to take out all of his enemies and become the most powerful man in the mafia underworld.

The protagonist, in all three The Godfather movies, was ruthless and deeply cold-blooded: he knew when to act and when to step back and let things happen. He understood that in order to get the power he desired, he had to be above anyone and anything – and that included killing family members in the process.

1 Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men

No Country For Old Men
Miramax Films

Psychopaths and sociopaths have become popular themes and characters in recent productions. However, there are very few that are able to convey just how emotionless and these types of people are and how capable they are. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) in No Country for Old Men actually is one of the best portrayals of a serial killer in movie history according to actual science, as reported by The Manual about a study on the subject made by professionals in the area. He has a strict code that allows and motivates him to kill people, which he is highly skilled to do.