13 July 2002 | nunculus
What a mug! The evil-harlequin mask of Malcolm McDowell, so familiar from those bugeyed closeups of him "mounching lumpchiks of toast" in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, has aged into a fabulous ruin. And one of the pleasures of the glib, slick, cocky, brutal, shallow, and terrifically entertaining GANGSTER NO. 1 is in the realization that McDowell is the same McDowell--his voiceover has the same energetic sneer it had 31 years ago in CLOCKWORK. He's the same guy under a withered and weathered facade. As Gangster No. 1--a sociopath with a schoolgirl crush on his boss, spit-shined David Thewlis--McDowell brings you into the succulent pleasures of aged corruption and long-swallowed brutality. No. 1's nuttiness--a kind of belch of guilt, generally released in Francis Bacon-derivative silent screams--seems, for a while, like fun. Paul Bettany, playing Young No. 1, has a great, lizardlike, histrionic deadpan--he keeps telling his victims "Look into my eyes!" as if something scary and deep were hidden there. (Instead, there is zero--an effect Young No. 1 may be unaware of.) The movie takes such a jaunty and directorially piquant view of its own shin-kicking nihilism that you can't help but play along; until the moralizing but utterly earned finale sets you on your ear.
Not deep stuff--not even as deep as the superbly unself-reflective head-smackers who made up GOODFELLAS' crew. But Saffron Burrows, as a Cockney chanteuse who's mad in love with Thewlis' Mr. Big, brings you back to the days of much-posher-and-prettier-than-their-parts British character actresses. (Could Burrows in fact be the Susannah York of the millennium?) And the director, Paul McGuigan, and Bettany keep the joint jumpin'. Why did this get such a crummy release? There's been almost nothing this year as sheerly, undilutedly fun.