24 September 2001 | giancarlorocks
A 'Fast Take' on another gangster film...
Ever since the release of Quentin Tarantino's crime drama 'Pulp Fiction'; it seems as if every other crime drama must reinvent itself. 'Gangster No. 1' falls into that category and while having many flaws, it still manages to capture the audience's attention with its' engaging tale.
This dark, stylish and graphic crime flick is the creation of UK director Paul McGuigan whose past efforts include 'The Acid House' and 'Morality Play'. And while it is crude, vulgar, violent and anti-climactic, it has all the characteristics one seeks for a crime film. The film opens with a stunning sequence in which a terribly miscast Malcolm McDowell retells his rise from a lonely soldier in a Crime Family to the head of the organization.
Paul Bettany plays McDowell's younger self mysteriously called Gangster 55; who does a superb job at capturing the rapturous rage of this young criminal. While working under Freddie Mays; played with an incredible sense of apathy by David Thewlis, we see Bettany/McDowell's character eye his position in this family on a much wider scale.
The film spans itself over 30 years and we see some superb performances from Paul Bettany, David Thewlis and Saffron Burrows. Yet, while the cinematography is stunning, the film's scale inventive and the performances outstanding - Malcolm McDowell is completely miscast. While his body of work displays his range and his acting skills a tremendous attribute, simply put - he was put in this film to sell to markets. Thewlis who also plays Mays thirty years into the future wears make up for his role and does a fine job, while Bettany's older self is played by McDowell and the scenes in which McDowell and Thewlis interact are quite uncomfortable because it simply does not feel right. McDowells' age difference empowers the scene and reminds us we are watching an actor with make-up, and another without - pretending to be the same age.
Furthermore, this film will not please everyone. This is the kind of film that unravels before your very eyes. Yet, the plot reveals itself not by actions but by the characters. In a slow-paced, methodical manner, the film's story unrolls in a manner that some might see as slow and unexciting. Yet, in order to enjoy the film one must immerse himself or herself within the simple plot that is brought to the screen with a touch of elegance with Director McGuigan's stylistic nature and wit.
While the film will not be hailed as one of the definitive gangster classics, it still is a good gangster film. And what could have brought it past the level of simply being a good watch is the disappointing last half-hour where our main character's older self (McDowell) is the focus of the film.
The first hour is told in flashback narrative sequences where McDowell tells of his rise. While the first hour harbors many similarities to other films such as 'American Psycho' (the slow, bloody, torturous deaths) and 'Goodfellas' the soundtrack accompanying the build up to a scene); it is entertaining and a pleasure to watch. Yet, the last half-hour culminates in Malcolm McDowell's present day stance as the notorious leader and his attempt to stay number one. Unfortunately, McDowells' performance pales incomparison to Bettany's and the unfortunate over the top performance by McDowell in a weak third act results in a good film not becoming a great film.