Gangster No. 1
Gangster No. 1 is one of the latest, if not greatest, examples of a distinct subgenre that's developed in England over the past half-decade: the lad's movie. A cross-Atlantic kissing cousin to the Tarantino knockoffs that flooded the direct-to-video market in the mid- to late '90s, the British lad's movie's lineage can be traced from Guy Ritchie to Quentin Tarantino on back through Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese. Gangster No. 1 has all the touchstones of the cycle: excessive style wedded to a lack of substance, lovingly rendered bursts of violence, a stubbornly adolescent sense of cool, and a motley collection of crooks and lowlifes played by a modestly budgeted assortment of up-and-comers, character actors, and faded icons. Malcolm McDowell is the faded icon at Gangster No. 1's center, although Paul Bettany racks up considerably more screen time as the youthful incarnation of McDowell's charismatic sociopath. As the film opens, McDowell, a narcissistic mass murderer, learns that the sharp-dressing crime kingpin (David Thewlis) he framed for murder is being released from prison after decades behind bars. The film then flashes back to the swinging, blood-soaked '60s, when Bettany/McDowell served as Thewlis' most trusted lieutenant. But second-best isn't good enough for the crime world's Iago, who soon schemes to take Thewlis' place through bloody brute force and Machiavellian scheming. Every element of Gangster No. 1 calls attention to itself. The soundtrack regularly overwhelms the action, the direction attempts to pound the audience into submission, the screenplay is full of overwrought tough-guy banter, and the performances range from over-the-top to way-over-the-top. McDowell chews the most scenery, but Bettany makes the most striking impression: Embodying the youthful version of one of filmdom's most memorable angry young men is a tall order, and he rises to the challenge, capturing McDowell's mix of playful charm and sinister belligerence without resorting to mere impersonation. But his star turn is wasted in the service of an empty vehicle for stylistic excess. Gangster No. 1's only real addition to the lad's movie is its heightened sense of fashion: The protagonist, whether played by Bettany or McDowell, may just be the only feral killer in film history to envy his boss' sartorial splendor as much as his power and money.