Judge Michael Nazarewycz spends one night in Bangkok, aka two hours in his living room.
This is a story of two ages: an age of knives and an age of guns.
When it comes to movies about organized crime, I've seen my share in 2013. There was the throwback look at 1940s LA gangsters in Gangster Squad; the Irish Republican Army of Shadow Dancer; the South Korean syndicates of New World and A Company Man, and the traditional East Coast mafia of The Iceman. Little did I know there was another family to follow, another region to visit, and another historical vein to tap.
Facts of the Case
The setting for The Gangster, from director Kongkiat Khomsiri (Art of the Devil 2), is Bangkok, and it takes place in the 1950s and 1960s. The story primarily centers on Jod (Krisada Sukosol Clapp in his screen debut), who earns his bones in Boss Lor's crew when he kills a rival boss in a knife fight. Jod, while successful, has tempered ambitions; he's content in his role within the construct of the "family." His best friend Daeng (Somchai Kemglad, Young Bao the Movie), however, likes the leadership role he has risen to in the same gang. The two men—the leader and the killer—quickly become underworld rock stars, drawing the attention of people who both idolize and envy their rise to power and notoriety.
As the years pass, two former youngsters who idolized Daeng and Jod begin to rise in those same ranks, and one particular rival has his sights set on finding out who is the better killer, Jod or himself. Corruption also sneaks into the family, as do moles for the police, who are corrupt themselves.
The Gangster is a film influenced by U.S. culture both in story and in presentation, which is both good and bad. Within the context of the story, the characters go to see American movies and wear sunglasses and put massive amounts of product in their hair to get that Elvis Presley look. This is okay, as we have to assume that it is an accurate historical snapshot of America's cultural influence on 1950s Thailand. It's the Americanized presentation of the story, though, that does the ambitious film a disservice.
The Gangster borrows from American mob movies like Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Brian DePalma's The Untouchables, but most notably it is very reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, with its narrated story of young men "coming up" together in the ranks of organized crime. The territory is familiar, and while the locale is different, it feels like it's a story that's been done before, and done better.
One other American film I was reminded of was (of all things) When Harry Met Sally. In the Rob Reiner comedy, the chapters of the story are divided by interviews of what are presented to be real people recounting their personal tales. The same device is employed in The Gangster, but to a different effect. Fourth wall-breaking statements from elder Thai people are interspersed throughout the film. These people, presented as actual witnesses to the events of the film, share their memories of the lead characters and the times in general. However, the "interviews" are randomly injected and do more to break the flow of the film than they do to advance the story. It becomes distracting quickly, especially as this is a period piece and the injection of modern-day witnesses breaks the period vibe every time.
Adding to this Americanized misstep is the film's era-specific score. While it's understandable that a film can't afford securing the rights to actual music from the '50s and '60s, the music here sounds like it was borrowed from bad American sci-fi movies that invariably have at least one scene of teens dancing in a malt shop. When the music isn't generic pop, the score is all over the place, ranging from strains of a Ry Cooder-like slide guitar to an Eric Clapton Fender Strat. Each is good, but in the same film they clash more than compliment.
The third act ultimately sacrifices storytelling in for a series of action scenes, which for me is usually an indication that the filmmakers simply don't know how to end their film.
The 1.85:1/1080p image of The Gangster (Blu-ray) is deceiving, which is really a testament to the film's cinematography. Unlike other Asian crime dramas I've recently reviewed, which take place in modern city settings and feature eye-popping visuals, the images of this film are muted, with earth tones found everywhere in costumes and sets. It also reflects a hot grittiness of time and place, which is well presented on Blu-ray. Even when piping in '50s-like music, the DTS-HD 5.1 Thai track is consistent and clear throughout.
Neither of the two extras are very good. A short "Making of The Gangster" feature offers routine interviews of cast and crew, and an even shorter "Behind the Scenes" extra provides nothing more than a couple of minutes of video clips strung together.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The character of Jod, and how Krisada Sukosol Clapp portrays him, is excellent. Jod is the reluctant assassin, happy to resolve an issue through less violent means, happy to give someone a chance to do the right thing, rather than resort to that dark thing he does so well. In fact, there is a sense that, as time passes, he is regretful that he is as good as he is at killing people. It's a fine performance from a cinema rookie.
Also, Americanization or no, the look of the characters is spectacular. Costumer Chatchai Chaiyon (Ong Bak 3) does an excellent job dressing each character in vintage styles that compliment their unique characters, all the way down to their Ray-Ban glasses. Everyone looks cool without trying to look cool.
Despite traveling a well-worn path and borrowing heavily from Hollywood, The Gangster looks good enough, and offers enough insight into a time and place that we don't really see that often, to make it worthy of a watch.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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