Continuing the recent theme of quirky British gangster movies and even plain old gangster movies, we saw the new Malcom McDowell/Paul Bettany flick Gangster No. 1 (the official site pissed me off some with a Flash intro that can’t be skipped passed and other than some clips from the cutting room floor is a surprisingly useless website). One of the real positives for this film is that all the dialog, for a change, is understandable to American ears.
The action is split between 1968/9 and 1999. The film opens in the latter period with Malcom McDowell surrounded by a table of associates in a very fancy ballroom with a boxing match going on in the center. The men are chatting and laughing, reminiscing, when one of them mentions that another “golden oldie, Freddy Mays” is getting out of the joint after 30 years. McDowell gets up from the table, leaving his pals wondering why, and leaves. We flash back to the ’60s and hear McDowell’s voiceover tells us that we’re seeing the younger him (Paul Bethany) in a pool hall and he has been summoned to meet Mays for the first time.
Through the rest of the movie, even though the character (who is never given a name) is played by mostly Bettany, we have McDowell providing the voiceover. No doubt that Bethany does look like a young McDowell; he will be familiar to you as Crowe’s imaginary friend in A Beautiful Mind and Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale. Given that there are three other characters we see in both times, all played by the same actors using makeup, I don’t really understand why Paul Bettany doesn’t play our protagonist throughout. Nothing against McDowell but I don’t see that he does much that Bettany couldn’t.
Frankie Mays (David Thewlis) has established himself as an English crime lord (nicknamed The Butcher of Mayfair) and is quite good in the 1968/69 sequences but not much in the later scenes. Saffron Burrows is quite lovely, all legs, and big eyes, as the nightclub dancer who’s pushed into love at first site with Mays, much to the dismay of our protagonist.
Director Paul McGuigan is responsible for keeping us engaged. There are no real subplots here, just the two main lines of action and while he does go in for a little more of the red stuff than one might deem necessary (and why do we need to see the older gangster Tommy’s puke?), it’s all believable, all straightahead. The script is credited to a Johnny Ferguson but he has no other credits in IMDB and this makes me wonder if this is a pseudonym.
The climax actually comes in the next to last scene, a confrontation between McDowell and Thewlis, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, should have been the end; the last scene is unnecessary and really detracts from what’s come before. Overall this is a very bloody, violent film so don’t go if this makes you ralph.
Also, the film was released in the UK and elsewhere in 2000, one must wonder why we’re seeing it here only now.
Recommended but not for the quesy