Gangster pictures have always been a staple of British cinema, but most of them weren’t exported until Guy Ritchie gave “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) the full Tarantino treatment and opened the floodgates. We Americans have a lot to blame him for, and this glitzy but formulaic and silly debut from Paul McGuigan is a perfect case in point. “Gangster No. 1” boasts a first-rate cast and lots of flashy technique, but shorn of all the razzmatazz the narrative is absurdly old-hat. A few really nasty moments and an operatic finale are added to provide spice, but they simply make the brew even more unsavory.
The story is mostly told in flashback after a mob chieftain (Malcolm McDowell) is informed (after a meal at one of those boxing restaurants so familiar from this kind of British flick) that his old boss Freddie Mays (David Thewlis) has been released from prison following a thirty-year stint for murdering wacked-out rival Lennie Taylor (Jamie Foreman, in a performance so overripe it positively reeks). The swaggering “Gangster 55,” as he’s called, informs us how he was plucked from obscurity by Mays and installed among his chief lieutenants. We then follow the career of the protagonist (now played by blonde-haired, steely-eyed Paul Bettany, although he’s appreciably taller than McDowell, supposedly his older self) through Mays’ conviction and his own usurpation of the top post in the gang. He and Mays become increasingly close until the boss falls for a waitress-singer named Karen (Saffron Burrows). The unnamed gangster, prone to sudden rages as he’s always been and utterly remorseless in carrying out orders, has never seemed entirely sane to begin with, but Mays’ romance apparently sends him completely over the edge; and when he uncovers Taylor’s plot to kill his pal, he conceals the information, allowing Karen and Freddy to be ambushed. Then he brutally tortures and kills Taylor, the instigator of the attempted assassination, knowing full well that Mays will be blamed. At this point the picture reverts to the present, when the gangster confronts the newly-released Mays in what’s supposed to be a revelatory moment. But the overwrought scene is just ridiculous instead.
Thus “Gangster No. 1” turns out to be a simple, by-the-numbers tale of betrayal, a no-honor-among-thieves story with submerged homoerotic elements. McGuigan jazzes it up with lots of violence, atmosphere and visual pizzazz, along with one sequence of bloody murder that rivals anything in “American Psycho.” But it winds up seeming forced, nasty and pointless. There’s not the slightest reason why we should want to spend two hours with these people or care in the slightest about what happens to them. The actors certainly aren’t strong enough to transform the material. Bettany has a catlike presence and does a smoldering stare and suppressed grin well, but he never really brings the character to life. McDowell struts, snarls and rages, but it all seems totally phony, and Burrows is little more than a pretty face. Thewlis’ is the best performance–he captures Mays’ serpentine oiliness adeptly, even if the role is (as all the others) basically one-note. One can appreciate Peter Sova’s imaginative cinematography and the frequently virtuoso touches in Andrew Hulme’s editing, but their efforts are in the service of distinctly inferior material. The flashy technique can’t conceal the hollowness beneath it.
“Gangster No. 1” concludes with an extravagant scene for McDowell, who shouts his defiance while perched atop a the railing of a plush apartment in a high-rise building, stripped down to his underwear to reflect back on an earlier sequence involving Bettany. The obvious exemplar is the famously explosive finale to Raoul Walsh’s “White Heat” (1949). In this case, though, Jimmy Cagney’s “top of the world” has been replaced by the bottom of the barrel.