Dir: Paul McGuigan. UK. 2000. 105 mins.
Prod Co: Pagoda Films. Int'l Sales: FilmFour. Prod: Norma Heyman, Jonathan Cavendish. Co-prods: Ulrich Felsberg, Nicky Kentish-Barnes. Exec prod: Peter Bowles. Scr: Johnny Ferguson. DoP: Peter Sova. Ed: Andrew Hulme. Prod des: Richard Bridgland. Mus: John Dankworth. Main cast: Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis, Paul Bettany, Saffron Burrows.
Flashy, eyecatching direction and an arresting performance from Paul Bettany are the outstanding features in the latest blood-sodden addition to the ever-burgeoning ranks of British gangland thrillers. Spraying the screen with four-letter words, savage violence and swaggering attitude, Gangster No. 1 will have an appeal for hardcore fans of hard man morality tales. Its sense of flair and excess may attract controversy and win it some support in the more style-conscious sections of the media but general audiences will find it difficult to stomach and limit its commercial chances accordingly. A slight improvement on director Paul McGuigan's equally unsavoury Acid House Trilogy, it pales by comparison with benchmarks of the genre like The Long Good Friday or Get Carter.
A mixture of doom-laden neo-noir and the all too familiar minutiae of tit-for-tat turf warfare, the film begins with the news that David Thewlis' Freddie Mays "The Butcher Of Mayfair" is to be released from jail after serving thirty years for murder. Wizened big time crime boss Malcolm McDowell is prompted to recall the man he once hero-worshipped and the treacherous machinations that led to Mays' arrest. The story then switches to 1968 when Bettany assumes the McDowell role of an ambitious young hood with a shocking disregard for human life.
As Bettany becomes a rising lieutenant in the Mays gang, we are soon wallowing in a world of Runyonesque hoodlums, hardboiled dialogue and over-the-top performances from British character actors who seem to have spent far too much time watching Goodfellas. You anticipate the arrival of Ray Winstone at any moment. Naturally, there's an attractive woman (Burrows) at the centre of the drama and just as predictably McGuigan resorts to all kinds of obvious tricks of the trade from direct-to-camera dialogue, freeze framing and using the soundtrack to ironically counterpoint the nastiest violence with the sweetest love songs.
Johnny Ferguson's screenplay doesn't add anything fresh to a well-worn genre and there are a number of unanswered questions left hanging as the tale returns to the present and the long-awaited day of reckoning between the two central adversaries. Unfortunately, the attempts to age Thewlis and Burrows by three decades are far from successful and the comparatively underused McDowell isn't at his most subtle come the final confrontation. The conclusion does however add a welcome moral dimension to the bloodbath that has preceded it. Even after thirty years as number one, McDowell is still pathetically in awe of Mays and hasn't even enjoyed the luxury of happiness or peace as a compensation. It may come a little late in the story, but it goes some way to balancing a film that seems uncomfortably enamoured of the violence it portrays.
Regardless of screenplay, direction or ethics, it is Bettany who emerges from this uneven affair with the most distinction. A physical match for the McDowell of the 1960s, he plays with a conviction that could freeze the blood. If nothing else, Gangster No 1 should be his stepping stone to stardom.