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USA 2000
Directed by
Paul McGuigan
103 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Gangster No. 1

If you like retro crime movies this is a good one, its ultra-violence and unrelentingly crude language not withstanding. Much of the credit goes to Paul McGuigan’s stylish direction which is so good that it makes you wonder why there are so many pedestrian films made. A good of credit should also go to Johnny Ferguson’s amped-up screenplay and the fine performances by the three leads, Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis and Paul Bettany. Although McDowell gets top billing this is really Paul Bettany’s film whilst David Thewlis gives a solid and unusually restrained performance that counterbalances the familiarly thuggish ambiance.

The film opens potently with a Reservoir Dogs-like round table discussion amongst a troupe of aging East End crims recalling past times. The subject of Freddy Mays (Thewlis) comes up and this sets Malcolm McDowell’s character referred to in the credits as Gangster 55 to recalling his rise in Mays’ Kray-era gang. We then go into flash back and follow his story with Paul Bettany playing the McDowell character. Quite a few people will have difficultly accepting the casting of the handsome and refined looking Bettany playing a hard man, let alone McDowell's younger self, but he burns with the icily ambitious and sociopathic energy that the character requires. Set in the mid-60s, the production design is a treat, McGuigan’s direction dynamic and the use of incidental music excellent.

The last act returns us to the starting point and now we understand why the name of Freddie Mays has derailed Gangster 55. The film looses some of its pizzaz at this point. Partly this goes with the retro styling, partly it is because McDowell’s gangster has not only coarsened with age but retreated into a classically paranoid view of the world, much like Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949), the ending of which has clear similarities with ending here. Although the gangster movie is one of the paradigmatic America genres, Gangster No. 1 is a strong addition to its British wing.

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