By now, the number of films made about British gangsters and lowlifes must outnumber the actual gangsters. The Brits, with their embarrassingly insatiable twin loves for cheap celebrity and the worst aspects of American culture, are just plain obsessed with spectacular crime in popular entertainment—and the results of that preoccupation keep washing up on our shores.
Luckily, these films about hit men don’t often miss: They’ve been a solid source of escapist fun for a while now. Guy Ritchie was the most recent director to tap this vein of bloodlust, but even his two solid pictures were outdone by last summer’s Sexy Beast, a spry minimalist work with Ben Kingsley, who got the chance to explode repeatedly as crazy bastard Don Logan.
This year, it’s Malcolm McDowell’s turn to twist off in Gangster No. 1, a deviously brilliant new film directed by newcomer Paul McGuigan. As the nameless, eponymous Gangster, McDowell and Paul Bettany (Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale) portray one of the craziest bastards a writer could ever create at two points in his life: 1968, when he rose to power, and 1999, when he’s in danger of being knocked back down.
McGuigan opens his film at a boxing match. The elder Gangster (McDowell) holds court with a bunch of similarly shady characters, one of whom informs him that Freddie Mays is getting out of prison next month. That’s news to Gangster, who flashes back on the story of his introduction to crime and to Mays (David Thewlis), the so-called Butcher of Mayfair, who was everything Gangster wanted to be.
This is where Bettany comes in. As the young Gangster, he’s a compelling mixture of youthful indignation and psychotic delusion as a penny-ante thug who falls under the spell of Mays—the evil crown prince of London. Gangster covets Mays’ suits and his power with equal avarice. Bettany has a leer that does McDowell proud, and though Bettany doesn’t have the operatic scenes given to McDowell, he’s perhaps even scarier. “Look into my fucking eyes!” he repeatedly commands his victims—and though we see it as the intimidation trick that it is, we do it too.
He also has a bone to pick with Mays’ girlfriend. Saffron Burrows is a talented actress and an all-around dish, but she still inspires reflexive laughs from those who remember that awful scene in Deep Blue Sea when she stripped down to her underwear so a shark wouldn’t eat her. She’s outstanding here as Karen, the nightclub singer who ruins Freddie’s concentration. It’s obvious Gangster is in some sort of twisted love with Freddie, not Karen, but their interplay leads to some wonderful scenes with excellent silences—the sort of thing that Coppola did so well in the first two Godfather films—amidst all the histrionics.
McGuigan has high aspirations: He wants to make an intimate, personal drama about a sociopath, and he wants to film a seriously sick guy killing people. The fact that he succeeds must be given entirely to the actors, who are uniformly outstanding with a script that’s rooted in theater (the film is based on a play) instead of Ritchie’s pop-culture-saturated milieu. The characters aren’t overly detailed and colored, but the sound (let’s just say there’s an axe murder) and the spectacle and the excitement of the whole atmosphere created by McGuigan are almost, dare we say, Shakespearean.
The third-act confrontation is a difficult bit of theater that almost doesn’t work, but McDowell and Thewlis manage to keep this wild ride going. The most revelatory aspect of Gangster No. 1, obvious for the final time in its climax, is its relentlessness. McGuigan attacks us over and over again with the sights and sounds of crime, brought to us by actors who are fully confident in their powers. For once, the British have given us something that actually lives up to its own hype.