"I'm Superman...King F---ing Kong. I'll blow you to kingdom come. I'm number one...number f---ing one!"
--Gangster, Gangster No. 1
The title 'Gangster No. 1' may sound vaguely familiar to rabid fans of Stanley Kubrick's 1971 classic, A Clockwork
Orange. Though it has yet to see release theatrically or on video in the United States, Malcolm McDowell -- who stars as
a violent anti-hero in both works -- boldly proclaimed that "A Clockwork Orange is like a Disney film next to Gangster No. 1".
Motion picture promotion is prone to hyperbole, but Gangster No. 1 is unarguably the most intense film of McDowell's
since his collaboration with Kubrick decades earlier.
Gangster No. 1 begins in the present day, with a wildly successful nameless, aging gangster (McDowell) receiving
the news that one of his old cohorts, Freddie Mays, has just completed his three decade stint in prison. After thie limited
setup, the film flashes back to 1968, where it remains for much of the duration. Gangster, played in the past by Paul Bettany
(A Knight's Tale), isn't the top dog in the crime world seen minutes earlier. He's a mere hoodlum, albeit one talented
enough to attract the attention of The Butcher of Mayfair, one Freddie Mays (David Thewlis). Gangster, who deeply admires
Freddie's success and stature, quickly becomes his right-hand man.
The world of organized crime isn't all tie-pins and Italian suits, though.
Crushed flunkies and torched nightclubs have tensions between May's gang and rival Lennie Taylor (Jamie Foreman) running high.
Softened by his love for a dancer at a local club (Saffron Burrows), May is seen as vulnerable, by both his enemies as well as
Gangster. Apologies for continually referring to Bettany's character as 'Gangster'. He's not given a name, and the
plot summary on the box refers to him that way. I'm merely following suit. Gangster seizes an opportunity to become
king of the world, mercilessly knocking off the competition and leaving a near-dead Freddie holding the bag. There's more to
success than wads of cash, and Gangster soon discovers that it's lonely at the top...
Gangster No. 1 is unabashedly brutal at times, though I find comparisons of its violence to that of A Clockwork
Orange grossly exaggerated. Its most notorious scene takes place from the perspective of the victim, and the camera
doesn't bother with lingering close-ups of the other attacks. This is not a film with some loose threads of plot that exist
solely to interconnect its graphic imagery. Paul Bettany, previously an unknown quantity to me, is brilliant as the young
gangster. His lust for power is intriguing, as is his apparent total lack of morality. Bettany's presence, despite a frame
that generally does not inspire such a reaction, is always imposing. McDowell puts in a great, if limited, performance, a
refreshing turn from the dreck that's littered his résumé since his turn in Caligula. Though Gangster's
primal screams had a tendency to incite some unintended chuckles, the film is played pretty straight, unlike Guy Ritchie's
better known entries in the genre. Quibbles are few. The ending is a little corny for my tastes, and McDowell's narration
becomes grating at times. In one pivotal scene, McDowell relates literally everything occurring on-screen. Yes, we see
Gangster walking down the hall. Sure, he just opened the door. That sort of excessive detail may have added extra tension as
part of a stage play or something, but it seems wholly unnecessary as executed here. I'm a sucker for awful puns, and I
couldn't help toying with the idea of saying something along the lines of this movie not being the number one gangster flick.
Gangster No. 1 won't curl toes in quite the same way as the original Get Carter, but this is still an excellent
movie that's required viewing for anyone with the faintest interest in the British gangster revival.
Video: Gangster No. 1 is a very stylized movie, using film grain to give it a gritty, rough feel, as well as
making inventive use of color and lighting to evoke certain emotions from scene to scene. These are all reflected beautifully
in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. Director Paul McGuigan's stylistic flourishes aside, there aren't any
flaws or concerns of note. The source material, as is to be expected from such a recent film, is in great shape, free of any
damage or noticeable wear. The palette varies wildly and intentionally so. Colors reproduction appears largely accurate,
though fleshtones in a couple of isolated shots seem too ruddy. I was going to make some quasi-witty pun about bleeding
colors and Gangster's violent butchering of Lennie Taylor, but I'll make some concerted attempt to resist. Shadow detail
sometimes seems a little lacking, but that's almost certainly due to the choice of film stock and the style of photography,
not a fault of the transfer. This isn't the sort of DVD perched to unseat your current reference disc of choice, but it's an
excellent presentation nonetheless.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio offers thunderingly deep bass when called for, contributing considerably to the
richness of the bits of music dispersed throughout. Surrounds are used frequently and effectively, helping to build an
engaging '60s-era gangster atmosphere. Though not quite as overwrought as Hollywood action flicks, nor should it be given its
focus on dialogue and characterization, there are some nice discrete surround effects as well. Dialogue is also crisp and
clear, though the thick accents are occasionally difficult to fully discern. There are also stereo surround tracks in English
Supplements: Director Paul McGuigan contributes an excellent commentary, and I was pleased to hear him touch on the
overabundance of one particular expletive for female genitalia in the movie. Among the other supplements are two deleted
scenes, which are presented in letterboxed widescreen. The first is a rather graphic torture scene that runs a little over a
minute and also includes commentary by McGuigan. McDowell, in the second, continues his mock conversation with Freddie Mays
for around two and a half minutes. Rounding out the supplements are a promotional featurette, filmographies, and a series of trailers for Gangster No. 1 and other TVA releases.
Conclusion: Gangster No. 1 isn't the best of the modern British gangster movies, but it's still a rollicking
good time. This disc is, unfortunately, not available in the United States, but it's widely available at a number of
Canadian-based e-tailers in the $20 range. Gangster No. 1 is more than worth what little effort may be required to
track it down, and this quality DVD may add some extra incentive for those like myself who have continually toyed with the
idea of importing TVA's spectacular Ginger Snaps disc. Highly Recommended.