Gangster No. 1, set in the swinging underworld of 1960s South London gangs, follows the rise of Gangster (played by Paul Bettany as a young man and Malcolm McDowell when older, narrating his life story in flashback). Despite attempts to place a “cool Britannia” sheen on the story, Gangster No. 1‘s style and plot are stale. Further, a disappointment with this brutal film is not strictly that it is violent, as there is certainly a place for violence in a film of this genre, but that the violence remains unexamined. What the film does examine is envy.
Coveting the wealth and power of his mentor Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), Gangster eventually gets sick of being second in command and brutally, almost single-handedly, kicks off a war between rival gangs. This war gives Gangster his time to shine, but the time for this film has definitely past. Director Paul McGuigan attempts to inject a visceral thrill to this familiar tale, mostly by relying on unique camera tricks and scenes of intense violence. Gangster No. 1 is being released in the United States two years after the film was first shown in the UK. Echoing several superior London gang dramas over the past few years, such as Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast — and referring quite directly to A Clockwork Orange — Gangster No. 1 feels more like Gangster No. 37.
What sets Gangster No. 1 apart from these other films is the absolute lack of irony or comedy. While there is element of tongue-in-cheek in the aforementioned films, which take stereotypes playfully over the top, Gangster No. 1 is too deadly serious. Gangster’s mantra: “I’m number one, number one. I’m fucking number one,” echoes Ben Kingsley’s obsessive cajoling of Ray Winstone’s character in Sexy Beast. Like Kingsley’s Don Logan, Gangster is a monomaniac, obsessed by his own need to be top dog. While Kingsley brought depth and vulnerability to his performance, the development of the Gangster character is too flimsy and shallow to support the kind of rage he unleashes.
Plucked from obscurity and referred to only as Gangster in the film, the main character is motivated by greed, bloodlust, and an obsessive jealousy of his boss, Freddie. Gangster is seduced by the thrill playing the part of Freddie’s bodyguard but his connection to Freddie is cemented by envy, not loyalty. While Gangster revels in stepping out as part of a group, he remains an outsider in the gang. He relishes the opportunity to decapitate a fellow gang member to initiate the conflict that allows him to take over not only Freddie’s position as head of the gang, but also Freddie’s apartment and the material accouterments of the good life: motivated not only by his desire to have Freddie’s possessions, but to become Freddie. This last proves a source of frustration. Where Freddie is stylish and charming, Gangster is brutish and psychotic.
Gangster’s need to impress Freddie even as he betrays him reveals the hint of sexual desire that forms the film’s most interesting dynamic. Here, again, Gangster No. 1 rehashes territory covered better in Sexy Beast. In both films, the relationship between fellow gang members is interrupted by the presence of a woman, who invades the homosocial world of the gang. In Gangster No. 1, Gangster betrays Freddie when the boss falls for local singer Karen (Saffron Burrows), and is busy making wedding plans.
For Gangster, sex is violence; he displaces his desire, for both Freddie and Karen, by acting out malicious fantasies with carnal ferocity. The gruesome, intimate portrayal of this violence is director McGuigan’s one stab at originality. Using odd camera angles and assorted tricks, the film showcases Gangster’s psychotic outbursts. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the film, Gangster strips down to his underwear and takes an axe to a rival crime boss. Most of this action is captured with a “victim cam” effect, which allows Gangster to glare menacingly as he harasses his victim while the audience watches from the murdered man’s perspective. This is gruesome and necessary to the plot, maybe, but lacking any emotional punch because Gangster is such a one-dimensional character.
While the film clearly shows that Gangster is a psychopath, the script doesn’t sustain interest in such a predictably crazy personality. Splitting the character between two actors, as the film does, is distracting, because the performances of Bettany and McDowell undermine rather than complement each other. Bettany’s star might be rising (he’s been praised for his work in the U.S. films, A Knight’s Tale and A Beautiful Mind), but McDowell’s seems to have set. He has entered the phase of hamming in what looks like a parody of his former self. This affects Bettany’s performance because, in looking to create congruencies between the older and younger Gangster, he adopts the sinister stare and other mannerisms that McDowell made famous in A Clockwork Orange and uses again in this film; when Gangster challenges his victims with the catchphrase “Look into my eyes,” Bettany appears to channel McDowell’s famous portrayal of lead droog Alex.
This brutality and McDowell’s narration also echo A Clockwork Orange. Where A Clockwork Orange envisioned a vile future, Gangster No. 1 portrays a vicious past. While the former was shocking because it dared to question how violence might be controlled by violation of individual rights, the latter doesn’t examine its protagonist’s aptitude for mowing down anyone in his path. Gangster No. 1 locks the viewer into Gangster’s murderous logic, but offers little depth of view.