There can only be ONE.
A modern British gangster movie in which Guy Ritchie had no part. Who knew there was such a thing?
Facts of the Case
As Gangster No. 1 opens, it is the present day and Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) plays a wealthy, aging casino owner and London thug known only as Gangster 55. McDowell appears on top of the world until hearing the news his old mentor, Freddie Mays (David Thewlis, who played Maude Lebowski's fey, giggling crony, Knox Harrington in The Big Lebowski) is returning to the street after a lengthy prison term.
Flashing back to the '60s, we learn how Gangster 55—now played by Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind)—fell under the wing of the more stylish and sophisticated Mays. With cunning and relentless brutality, he works his way up the ranks of the organization, taking over when his mentor is jailed.
The question is, when 55 and Mays meet again after all these years, who will be gangster number 1?
Gangster No. 1 is most successful in its middle. Once past the kinetic, whiz-bang camera work of its opening few minutes, it becomes a stylish film noir more focused on its plot and characters than in-your-face directorial self-indulgence. Unfortunately, the film's last act transitions back into editing so fast and jagged it nearly induces a seizure. It's as if director Paul McGuigan created wild bookends to his tale in order to convince viewers they were watching something with the visual aplomb of a film by David Fincher or Guy Ritchie, although he doesn't have the focus or sensibility to maintain that sort of eye candy for 103 unbroken minutes.
McGuigan's framing device is classic noir convention. Many of the genre's masterpieces tell their stories in flashback with a voice-over narration by one of the lead characters (McDowell tells the tale of Gangster No. 1), heightening narrative tension by locking the viewer into the limited and highly subjective point-of-view of a single character (think Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Carol Reed's The Third Man, and Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai to name just a few). Couple this convention with the crime-driven storyline, and its obvious McGuigan is riffing on noir. The problem is, he either doesn't have a full grasp of the genre or purposely flouts it at key moments. Either way, the result is disastrous: what could have been a tight little thriller—the kind of movie you recommend to friends as a little-known treasure (remember The Usual Suspects back in the mid-'90s before everyone and his dog had seen it?)—turns out to be nothing at all worth remembering or recommending.
The bookends themselves are the problem because they veer away from strictures of noir and try to be something else, something more modern and psychological. They end up being dull, pretentious, and anti-climactic. Assuming one is watching a pure noir (it's a fair assumption because, as I've established, McGuigan leads us down that path), one believes the story is about how Freddie Mays ended up in prison and Gangster 55 the king of London's mean streets. A tension builds around the mystery of what will happen when Freddie's on the streets again and face-to-face with his old apprentice. The letdown is that in the end nothing happens at all. McGuigan reveals the movie's not about anything happening. It feigns a deeper, more nuanced and human meaning: a psychological dissection of Gangster 55. Who is he? What makes him tick? Based on the fact the character's name is never revealed, I think you can guess the sort of trite observation we're left with at the end of the film.
True film noir, you see, isn't concerned with the psychological identities of its protagonists. Who is Double Indemnity's Walter Neff? A guy who tries to commit insurance fraud. The film doesn't particularly care about his motive for the crime; that he behaved criminally is character definition enough. Are Harry Lime's immoral black market dealings in The Third Man the result of a childhood filled with parental neglect? Who cares?
Strong performances by the talented cast are not enough, unfortunately, to save Gangster No. 1 from its own anti-climactic fizzle. McDowell oozes confident malice as Gangster 55, basically sleepwalking through a typed performance he mastered in A Clockwork Orange over thirty years ago. Don't get me wrong. McDowell's not bad, and he doesn't look bored. It's just that psychopathic criminal isn't exactly new territory for him. David Thewlis, as Freddie Mays, provides the real stand-out performance in the film. In Thewlis' hands, Mays is no gangster stereotype at all: he's tough, ruthless, vain, and stylish to a fault, but somehow also roundly human, capable of love and vulnerability. It's easy to see how he'd lose his kingdom to a relentless, ambitious, and violent character like 55. Paul Bettany is one to watch as the young 55. He somehow manages to simultaneously exude villainy and naïveté, playing the character as a sort of embryonic psychopath, envious of Freddie's style, money, and worldliness, awkward with women, uncouth, willing to take by force that which he covets. It's a strong performance that deserves a better executed film.
That MGM chose to present Gangster No. 1 on a single-sided, dual-layered disc in two aspect ratios—1.85:1 anamorphic, and full screen pan & scan—creates problems. The quality of the widescreen transfer is stable and free of shimmering (which is impressive considering some of the freaky-deaky 1960s wallpapers adorning many of the sets), but it's soft and slightly too grainy for a film that's only a couple years old. I'm all for consumer choice, and would much rather see both widescreen and full screen transfers provided than just full screen, but I bet putting each transfer on its own side of a dual-sided disc would've allowed for a much sharper image.
There's a single soundtrack option: a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. It's fine. There's some atmospheric use of surrounds in some of the club scenes as well as during the film's whiz-bang bookend segments, but this is mainly a dialogue movie that isn't going to impress with a state-of-the-art effects track.
Before I get into the supplements, let me throw out a caveat. The specs on the back of the keep case list both Spanish and English subtitles. There are only Spanish. If you're the sort who struggles to understand Cockney English…well…sorry, you're out of luck on this one.
The only significant extra on the disc is a feature-length commentary by director Paul McGuigan. It's a run-of-the-mill anecdotal commentary in which cast and crew are praised, and production stories are related. McGuigan's Scottish brogue replaces the feature's Cockney, so again, if you're the type who needs subtitles in order to understand the dialogue in a Guy Ritchie flick, best of luck to you. There's a deleted scene called "After All These Years" that is mainly more of McGuigan's Ritchie imitation; thankfully, it was left out of the movie. The remainder of the supplements are of the electronic press kit variety. There's a five-minute making-of featurette that is glossy and worthless except for one brief moment during which McDowell gushes over the film as the greatest work he's done since A Clockwork Orange. He's convincingly smarmy until we realize McGuigan is sitting just off camera and McDowell's only pulling his chain. The supplements are rounded out by a trailer and TV spot.
Close but no cigar. The film builds suspense in a skillfully organic manner, then never pays off. Too bad.
Gangster No. 1 is guilty of squandering opportunity. Because of the cast's strong performances, and the fact McGuigan came so close to hitting the jackpot, only to crap out, I just don't have the heart to find any of the people involved guilty. They're free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Paul McGuigan
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