All gangsters are cool. Even the crazy ones.
Malcolm McDowell plays an unnamed Gangster who, through him, we’re being told this story. He finds out that his mentor, Freddie Mays (David Thewlis) is finally getting released from prison. This is when we’re brought back to the year, 1969, where he tells us the story of when he was a young gangster (Paul Bettany) and practically climbed through the ranks of the British mafia.
It seems like whenever a gangster flick comes out, they’re always unnecessarily compared to other, sometimes better gangster flicks that came before them. For instance, if one has a bit of humor in it, it’s often considered a rip-off of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Or, if one is quick-as-lightning, it can be sometimes looked as a carbon copy of Goodfellas; and if there’s a flick that’s takes its time, and prefers more of the slow-burn approach, it’s then compared to the Godfather, no matter what. Basically, gangster flicks have it tough and it’s only made worse by the fact that it’s getting a whole lot harder to tell these kinds of stories in fun and fresh ways.
When does Malcolm McDowell not look pissed-off?
But what about a gangster flick that’s more like American Psycho?
Now, that’s something new, which is why Gangster No. 1 is a pleasant surprise.
Director Paul McGuigan deserves credit here because he doesn’t try to be like any other types of gangster flicks out there, nor does he over-do anything, either. There’s no hip soundtrack, nor are there any bits of wit to break-up the tension when things get too serious; it’s very straight-forward gangster movie. However, it is, in no way, a boring or conventional one; it’s a surprisingly ruthless piece that, once it gets going, starts spinning faster and faster, only until that wheel eventually breaks loose and becomes a wild ride where you have no idea where it’s going to end up and how. The story may not be as unpredictable as I may make it sound, but what really makes this film tick is the style (or lack thereof) of the violence in this film that no matter how gruesome or tense it got, it keeps you glued.
One scene in particular that stays clear in my mind is the one where “the Gangster”, finds a rival mob-boss, and slowly tortures him. Heard it done before? Of course, but there’s a surprising twist with it: It’s told in the victim’s view-point. It may sound gimmicky, but surprisingly it’s effective as every little piece of pain that gets inflicted onto him, almost feels like it’s getting inflicted onto us. The blood for that scene just shoots out everywhere, the camera is constantly moving rapidly, but yet, still stays on the violence happening, and there’s even a nice little pop tune playing in the back to remind us just how more sinister this piece of torture truly is. Anytime you have pop song in your violent movie, always make sure to play it during the most violent scene.
Always ironic. Always awesome.
And while that was just one scene in particular, the rest of the movie works because McGuigan doesn’t seem to try too hard to make this separate itself from the plenty other gangster flicks out there.
But if there was something here that bothered me, it was the narration from Malcolm McDowell, that honestly, was heard one too many times. At first, it didn’t seem like much of a problem because it placed us in the story and setting, but after awhile, it just became over-bearing and pointless to where it just seemed like half of the stuff he said was profanity. He even goes as far as to describe one scene while it was happening and it just seemed like over-kill and probably could have been done a lot better without really having to explain the needless things. Then again, they were probably just trying to put us in the mind of a psycho killer, which honestly, we kind of get the drift of after the first ten or so minutes.
Gangsters? Or Wankers?
And before I forget to mention it, why the hell did everybody look the same with some nice make-up on after the 30 years, but Paul Bettany completely changes into McDowell. Everybody in this cast gets some fake, gray hair, a couple of wrinkles in their skin, and a very fragile voice, but the main Gangster is the only guy that gets fatter, has a bigger head, has a terrible five-o’-clock shadow, and is still yelling, pissing, and screamin’ all of these years later. Maybe people don’t change after 30 years and still stay their same old, crazy selves, but it seemed a bit unbelievable to me that after 30 years, these people would all still look and act the same, as well as holding the same, old grudges they held before.
Maybe I’m just not a true gangster.
Though it may not sound like I was happy with him doing anything here, McDowell is still quite solid in this role as the aging, but still vicious gangster. It’s obvious that they placed him in the role of an older, and much more crazier psycho (*cough cough* A Clockwork Orange *cough cough*), but he kicks ass with the role still and made me laugh whenever he seemed like he just felt like dropping the C-word for no good reason at all.
But it’s Paul Bettany, playing the younger version of him, who steals the whole show. Bettany has a lot to work with here because he gets to show a lot of evil and dark aspects to this guy, while also showing a lot what makes us love him so much in the first place. However, a lot of that lovely shite he usually has in those other flicks, isn’t as showy here and we get to see what he can do whenever he gets angry and just feels like gutting somebody up into little pieces. We’re never made to feel sympathy for this cat, which works; he’s not asking for that and that’s what makes him so much more bad-ass. Now, will somebody please give Paul Bettany one more leading role and just act like Priest doesn’t even exist.
Consensus: Without trying to be too flashy or shiny, Gangster No. 1 is still an effective, surprisingly fun gangster flick that puts us inside the mind of a psycho killer, and allows for Paul Bettany to work wonders with the meaty role as said psycho killer.
7.5 / 10
Silent, but deadly. Yup. Obvious one, I know.
Photos Courtesy of: Nick Tentis, Film4, Mubi