Gangster No. 1

(2002) *** R
105 min. IFC. Director: Paul McGuigan. Cast: Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis, Paul Bettany, Saffron Burrows, Kenneth Cranham.

Gangster No. 1 is yet another brutal, sick, and funny U.K. gangland import hopped up on technique. Here is the familiar arch use of lounge pop to contrast unfathomably bloody violence; there is the street-dialect narration explaining what it was like to run with the mob. Yet its eccentric charms overshadow the next-generation genre jungle gyms of Guy Ritchie and his mates. Scorsese needn't watch his back, but Gangster No. 1 makes a surprisingly enjoyable ride-through attraction of depravity and lust.

The film begins with Malcolm McDowell (whose character is mockingly dubbed "Gangster 55" in the credits) taking remote enjoyment in being on top of a successful crime syndicate. Casually informed that Freddie Mays--the man whose empire he stole--is being released from prison, McDowell's "King Leer" quickly begins to unravel. Most of the story is told in flashback narrated by McDowell, whose younger self is played--with predatory poise and piercing gaze--by Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind).

Essentially a story of a "No. 2" who wants to become (or possess?) a "No. 1," the story's homoerotic subtext boils over into blunt supertext, and director McGuigan knowingly observes "Gangster 55" with as little sympathy as the character feels for his victims (McDowell's dispassionate narration to Bettany's streetside view to a kill is priceless). McGuigan, along with screenwriter Johnny Ferguson, captures the mindset of being young and psychopathic while climbing the hood equivalent of the corporate ladder.

The film largely succeeds on the strength of its cast. Mays is played by David Thewlis, who expertly modulates intense command in the flashbacks to a guarded stillness in his present-day showdown with McDowell. McDowell's smirky confidence and ferocious volleys cover childish self-delusion while recalling his Clockwork Orange heyday (McGuigan helps with a shot here or device there that evoke the Kubrick classic). Bettany steps up and fearlessly embodies the needy goon, deftlymatching McDowell, stripping to kill, and abruptly wailing like one of Phil Kaufman's aliens from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Gangster No. 1 crackles with visual flair, with its geometric design and vertical-blinds motif fragmenting the screen like the psyche of its protagonist. McGuigan's try-anything attitude keeps the viewer fearfully off-balance with business like forward-leaping plot glimpses and extended, manic P.O.V. shots (at one point, McDowell even looks into the camera and scolds the audience).

Hopefully, this film is only a warm-up for McGuigan, but even as a genre workout, the twisted humor (which suggests that an examined life may not be worth living in the criminal underworld) and dark shocks distinguish Gangster No. 1.

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