Although he got his start on the silver screen in the late 1960s, it was in the subsequent decade that Al Pacino became one of the hottest actors on the Hollywood block. In the seventies, he starred in several crime films that defined his career even to this day. And of course, that trend continued in each subsequent decade thus far throughout history.
He’s received nine total nominations for acting at the Academy Awards — six of them wound up on this list. That speaks to the caliber of the crime genre, as many of these films are commonly cited among the greatest ever made. But with all that said, these are the fifteen best Al Pacino crime films, ranked.
16 Cruising (1980)
Written and directed by William Friedkan, this could very well be the most overlooked of the bunch. In fact, if you consider yourself a lover of crime thrillers or Al Pacino’s acting style in general, then Cruising (1980) could very well be up your dark, thug-infested alley.
As the film follows a detective assigned to infiltrate the underground homosexual scene (in order to find a serial killer who is targeting gay men), the title reveals itself as a double entendre. Unfortunately, that’s about as meaningful or poetic as the project gets, but it is a fun ride nonetheless for more hardcore fans of Pacino. And at the end of the day, plenty of fans and pundits alike would cite this as one of the most underrated Pacino films of the acclaimed actor’s career.
15 Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
Here in the final entry of Steven Soderbergh’s seminal crime trilogy, Al Pacino shows up as Willy Bank. A prominent and wealthy hotel owner, Willy is actually the primary antagonist of Ocean’s Thirteen (2007). Granted, nobody shined particularly bright in terms of sheer performance, but the overall product was of course an entertaining narrative nonetheless.
And it’s not the worst film of the trilogy in terms of sheer quality, either. That title goes to the second entry. But either way, not every sequel can live up to the caliber of their respective original counterparts. Ocean’s Thirteen put forth a valiant effort, though, and Al Pacino had a lot to do with that.
14 Dick Tracy (1990)
Based on the 1930s comic book strip character of the same name, Dick Tracy (1990) features Warren Beatty in the starring role — he produced and directed the film, too. And the film follows the titular Tracy as he both traverses multiple relationships and rivals with a crime boss named Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice.
That was Pacino’s character, and he actually garnered a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards for his efforts. But Madonna was also praised for her work herein, and the film as a whole was bolstered by an engaging visual style. If you haven’t seen this iconic crime film, it’s better late than never.
13 House of Gucci (2021)
The most recent film on the list, House of Gucci (2021) was directed by famous English filmmaker Ridley Scott. And as is the case with most of these entries — save perhaps for one notable example in the following one — its entire cast put forth phenomenal performances. Aside from that, there isn’t too much worth writing home about in this regard from a sheer qualitative perspective.
But that isn’t to say it isn’t entertaining. While it misses the mark in several critical aspects, it’s not like it fails at any one thing in particular. In other words: its story of the Italian fashion brand Gucci and the fight between two characters to gain control thereof will undoubtedly hit home to some degree for fans of the crime film genre. It’s worth checking out if you haven’t already.
12 The Godfather Part III (1990)
The final entry of Francis Ford Coppola’s famous gangster trilogy was underwhelming to some, but underrated to others. Either way, it’s easy to conclude that The Godfather Part III (1990) suffered primarily from an overly involved plot. But one of the most famously negative critiques was with regard to Sofia Coppola’s performance. The product would have likely been less jarring as a whole had they stuck with Winona Ryder, the original casting for Sofia Coppola’s role.
But of course, none of that is to say it’s a bad film — just that it was underwhelming and suffered to a degree due to the worldwide renown of the franchise’s two prior entries. More on those later, of course. But for fans of the series in general, just know that this placement should simply shine light on the rest of the list’s entries.
11 Sea of Love (1989)
After the critical and commercial abomination that was Revolution (1985) — a historical drama by British director Hugh Hudson — Pacino took a hiatus from acting until returning to the big screen in triumphant fashion with Sea of Love (1989). Based on a 1978 novel called Ladies’ Man by Richard Price — who also wrote the script for the film adaptation at hand — it follows Pacino’s character as a New York City police detective attempting to track down a serial killer.
Sea of Love triumphs over the list’s prior entries almost in concept alone. The aforementioned serial killer chooses his victims by perusing a newspaper’s singles column. And it was executed carefully enough that it managed to impress critics to a decent degree while also accruing over a hundred million bucks at the box office on a $19 million budget. And despite its more underrated status from a modern perspective, its quality undoubtedly reflects those critical and commercial statistics.
10 Donnie Brasco (1997)
Directed by Mike Newell, the film stars Pacino alongside Johnny Depp — the latter in the titular role as an undercover FBI Agent, whose real name is actually Joseph D. Pistone. He’s tasked with infiltrating the workings of the Bonanno crime family, which is where Pacino’s character Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero comes into play.
And although other thespians like Michael Madsen and Anne Heche were hard at work here in Donnie Brasco (1997), the aforementioned actors in Pacino and Depp were undoubtedly the film’s biggest takeaway. Their performances garnered widespread acclaim, and ultimately, the script in general was just brilliant through and through. It undoubtedly deserves a spot in the top ten.
9 Scarface (1983)
Directed by Brian De Palma, his titular role in Scarface (1983) — the nickname of main character Tony Montana, a drug lord — is easily among the most famous performances of Pacino’s career. After the first two Godfather entries, this project solidified him as an icon of the gangster subgenre. And there’s a good reason for that, as it’s both a realistic portrayal of crime and a perfectly stylized spectacle wrapped into one critically acclaimed package.
It resonated well with audiences, too — not at the box office, necessarily. But it is now commonly considered a cult classic of cinema. And, fun fact: it’s actually a remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name, which is in turn adapted from a novel — also called Scarface. You’ve undoubtedly heard of this one, but if you haven’t checked it out, it’s best you do so, stat.
8 Carlito’s Way (1993)
This is one of two films on the list that doesn’t receive the appreciation it deserves from a modern perspective. But it’s held up pretty much perfectly, featuring a brilliant effort from Pacino despite not receiving praise from any major award association. But perhaps the biggest story regarding the underrated performances of Carlito’s Way (1993) is with the supporting roles: Sean Penn, Penelope Ann Miller, Luis Guzman, John Leguizamo, and Viggo Mortensen are all featured therein.
The film itself was directed by Brian De Palma in his second collaboration with Pacino, and their chemistry shined from the film’s opening frame until the rolling of the credits. And, again: although it may not hold the name value of other films on the list, Carlito’s Way should in the end go down as one of Pacino’s bests.
7 The Irishman (2019)
While this may be a hot take for fans of Martin Scorsese’s most recent crime epic, The Irishman (2019) is of course a film of legitimately quality. Don’t let this placement mistake you. Every actor involved herein — from Al Pacino and Robert De Niro to Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel — were back at their criminally inclined best, as each of those actors are absolute veterans of the genre.
And of course, as is Scorsese. This was Pacino’s first collaboration with the famous American director, and that was a huge storyline going in. But perhaps the biggest narrative was that he was back alongside De Niro after the two appeared together in Heat (1995) — but more on that later. On any day of the week, The Irishman (2019) could land even higher. But number seven will have to do.
6 Serpico (1973)
As time passes, Serpico (1973) becomes more and more underrated. That could very well be due to the fact that it was released directly between both Godfather movies by Francis Ford Coppola, in which Pacino played Michael Corleone — the franchise’s lead role. But that also meant that his name value was skyrocketing with each passing year. And when adding Dog Day Afternoon (1975), everything resulted for Pacino in a phenomenal run in the seventies.
One for the history books, frankly, and Serpico was the most overlooked of the bunch from a standpoint of popularity. It was of course well regarded by critics, as it featured a profound script with smooth tactics of editing. But the biggest story worth writing home about in this regard is how seamlessly Pacino transformed into his role as the titular Frank Serpico. He spent weeks with the real-life detective, studying his mannerisms and emulating his behavior. And that time proved productive, as his performance here in Serpico is undoubtedly among the best of his career. It should truly be remembered as such.
5 Insomnia (2002)
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, this psychological thriller features a truly compelling narrative from the start, with brilliant performances from everyone involved — perhaps most prominently the actor at hand. Al Pacino stars as a detective with the titular sleeping disorder here in Insomnia (2002), and goes up against a rare antagonistic effort from Robin Williams. And in another supporting role was Hillary Swank, who also performed to a brilliant degree — really, everyone involved was at their best.
And that includes Nolan, who remade this from a 1997 Norwegian film of the same name. And as a master of the thriller genre, he has a fair share of other underrated titles under his belt — that can undoubtedly be said here along with others like The Prestige (2006). But the latter isn’t of the psychological subgenre. Meanwhile, Insomnia is one of the best it’s ever seen, as the titular sleeping disorder of Detective Will Dormer — again, Pacino’s character — facilitated wonderful elements of the psychological thriller subgenre from a more technical filmmaking standpoint. Definitely check this one out.
4 Heat (1995)
Undoubtedly one of the most popular films on the list — especially from a modern perspective — this seminal heist thriller by Michael Mann is often considered by fans and critics alike to be a masterpiece of the subgenre. Everyone involved acting wise were on their absolute A-games, from Al Pacino and Robert De Niro to Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore. And that’s hardly scratching the surface of its star-studded cast.
And although much was made of Pacino appearing on screen with De Niro, there’s so much more worth writing home about regarding the quality herein. Its script from Mann facilitates pure tension until the final gunshot rings out, and more behind-the-scenes elements of filmmaking like editing and cinematography require essays of their own. If you somehow missed out on Heat, it’s best you correct that mistake immediately.
3 The Godfather: Part II (1974)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this legendary gangster flick hardly needs to be discussed from a critical point of view. Any film deemed among the greatest of all time is undoubtedly of some relative quality, whether its from a hardcore storytelling standpoint or a more casual moviegoer’s point of view. It appealed to both audiences almost in name value alone — just look at the actors included in the cast of The Godfather Part II (1974).
It had Al Pacino in the starring role, along with an Oscar-winning performance (Best Supporting Actor) from Robert De Niro, and also featured juggernauts of the decade like Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, and John Cazale. And none of this was to even touch on the narrative itself. It’s best you experience that for yourself, though.
2 Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Perhaps a hot take, but there’s no denying that the name value of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) has diminished over time. Not the quality of the project itself, though, as it should go down as perhaps the greatest heist film ever made — or at least, right up there with the likes of Heat and Reservoir Dogs (1992). And here, Pacino stars as Sonny Wortzik alongside John Cazale as Sal Naturile.
And while the project at first appears as a fun caper film, it quickly escalates with resonant themes and turns into a tale of unadulterated poignance. It was up for numerous awards at its respective Oscars ceremony, and even walked away with a win for Best Original Screenplay. It was well-earned, too, as the bank heist herein is executed with poise and wit, unlike any other of its kind. It’s the kind of story that sticks with you months after an initial viewing.
1 The Godfather (1972)
This should undoubtedly round out everyone’s list of the best Al Pacino crime films, the best of his career in general, and the best Francis Ford Coppola film, too. It could very well top the lists of many people’s favorite movie ever made, in fact, as it’s commonly cited as one of the greatest thereof. And that’s of course for a very good reason.
Mario Puzo helped Coppola write the script, which in turn was based on the former’s novel of the same name. And they proved to be quite the screenwriting duo, as The Godfather (1972) never would have enjoyed the success it did if not for its rock-solid structure, the wit of the characters’ dialogue, and of course everyone’s development. There’s an endless array of filmmaking elements to write home about here, to be frank. But of course, you probably knew that already.