Gangster No. 1

on June 14, 2002 by Tim Cogshell
   In contemporary London, Gangster (Malcolm McDowell), as he is called, is the number one man in a major crime syndicate and has been for 30 years--ever since his mentor, Freddy Mays (David Thewlis), went to prison for murder. He and his cohorts are laughing and telling stories from the old days when someone glibly mentions that Freddy is getting out. Gangster stops laughing.

   In narrative voiceover, Gangster takes us back to 1968 in a flashback that covers most of the movie. We watch a young Gangster, now played by Paul Bettany ("A Knights Tale"), as he meets the man whose life he wants, Freddy Mays. He becomes Freddy's confidant, his prime enforcer and, ultimately, his undoing. Young Gangster is utterly psychotic, like the would-be emperor in Shakespeare's first play, "Titus Andronicus," another British story about not just the lust for power, but for another person's life, whole and complete. Indeed, "Gangster No. 1" is one part Shakespeare and one part Scorsese--"Titus" meets "Goodfellas."

   The gangster genre was born early in film history and just about every conceivable depiction of bad men with guns and their dastardly deeds has been explored. Finding a new take is difficult, but it happens. Quentin Tarantino did it with "Pulp Fiction," playing with juxtapositions, trivial incidents and philosophical diatribes, while abandoning the burden of a point. "Gangster No. 1" director Paul McGuigan ("Acid House"), on the other hand, has not found a particularly new take. The film rehashes several old themes and is capped with pointless extremes--it's insanely violent and very graphic. It does have a few interesting flourishes and some exceptional performances that buoy the more mundane aspects of the movie. Still, its ultimate lack of a point is a problem it does not quite overcome.    Starring Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis, Paul Bettany, Saffron Burrows, Jamie Foreman and Andrew Lincoln. Directed by Paul McGuigan. Written by Johnny Ferguson. Produced by Norma Heyman & Jonathan Cavendish. An IFC release. Drama. Rated R for brutal violence, pervasive language and brief drug use and nudity. Running time: 103 min.

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