The underworld: a place where a ruthless killer can go from nameless thug to wealthy mobster on the virtue of being willing to do anything; a place where death is lurking around every corner, and human nature is "red in tooth and claw." As Gangster No. 1 opens, we see Malcolm McDowell as one of the lords of the jungle: a gangster who has made it to the top. How did he get there? And, more importantly, what kind of person is capable of climbing to the top in the dark and brutal world of the British mob?
Gangster No. 1 shares with fellow "British gangster movies" Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels a distinctive visual style marked by fractured, stylized images, extremely mobile camera work, and a willingness to present events on-screen in a manner very different from what we'd call objective reality. But whereas both Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels are plot-driven, Gangster No. 1 is an entirely character-driven film, focusing tightly on the psychological experience of one man: the Gangster himself.
As the film opens, we see the Gangster (Malcolm McDowell) surrounded by the trappings of wealth, laughing it up with other gangsters of his age, until one of them happens to mention that Freddie Mays has finally been released from prison after thirty years inside. We don't know who Freddie Mays is, but we can see that the name profoundly shocks Gangster. It's the catalyst for a prolonged flashback to thirty years earlier, the 1960s, when the younger Gangster (Paul Bettany) was a lowly thug with dreams of grandeur and Freddie Mays was the top dog in the British underworld.
Various events unfold in the 1960s era concerning Freddie (David Thewlis) and his struggle to stay ahead of the other, competing gangsters, and our protagonist has an important part in these events. But the central story is completely psychological: we see how Gangster is eaten up by the desire for power and the trappings of power, and how he has fixated on Freddie Mays as the symbol of everything he wants to be... and, perhaps, that he unconsciously knows that he will never be. As the film proceeds, we follow Gangster's ascension to the Number 1 spot at the same time that internally he is falling further and further into an interior madness that no one and nothing can save him from.
Gangster No. 1 takes on an ambitious task, of portraying in a convincing manner the mental state of a character who, because of his psychopathic nature, will be alien to viewers. However, although it presents a well-done attempt, Gangster No. 1 does not quite manage to pull it off. Some key elements in the film remain unclear, such as Gangster's obsession with the rival gangster, and the reason for a particularly brutal murder near the end of the flashback sequence. It's understandable that we don't relate to Gangster, but we do need to understand how his mind works, and in that respect the film doesn't quite provide all the necessary pieces. Because of this failing, the climactic scene does not have the punch it should have; intellectually, I can reason out why the script has Gangster acting the way he is acting, but it doesn't feel natural; I haven't been convinced that his behavior is the inexorable consequence of what has come before.
The overall image quality of Gangster No. 1 is disappointingly low for such a recent film (2000). A substantial amount of noise, edge enhancement, and print flaws is present, suggesting that the source wasn't cleaned up at all for the DVD release. Gangster No. 1 also suffers from having to share the DVD space with a pan-and-scan version of the film; with only half the possible space available, the video quality is negatively affected, with a general lack of clarity throughout.
Colors look a bit odd in some scenes, but it appears to be an example of intentional visual play: the 1960s flashback scenes tend to be slightly brownish, and a green tint is used in some of Gangster's more psychotic moments.
What saves it from dipping below average is that the widescreen version of the film, preserving its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is anamorphically enhanced. It's watchable, but given the considerable flair of the visual style, it's a shame it didn't get a cleaner, more attractive transfer.
Gangster No. 1 has a very well-done Dolby 5.1 track. What's most striking about it is that in addition to the diverse camera angles and surprising visual "tricks" used to create the style of Gangster No. 1, director Paul McGuigan has also been creative with the use of sound. In many scenes, the soundtrack reflects what's going on in Gangster's mind rather than what's actually happening around him, sometimes with a quite creepy effect.
Apart from the "special effects" of the soundtrack, it plays as a very clean and accurate track. Dialogue is always perfectly understandable, especially important for U.S. viewers considering the strong British accents of the actors, which are great fun to hear. The surround capability of the 5.1 track is put to good use, with many immersive moments and some very startling ones.
The most significant special feature is a full-length audio commentary by director Paul McGuigan; we also get a deleted scene. The remaining features are more filler than anything else: a five-minute promotional-style featurette that offers no meaningful information, a trailer, and a TV spot.
Gangster No. 1 doesn't quite pull all its pieces together to become the knockout film it aspires to be, but the pieces themselves are very interesting: the fact that it has a tight psychological focus, instead of being a more ordinary action-crime film, and the compelling and creative visual and auditory style both make Gangster No. 1 worth watching for viewers who have enjoyed other films in the genre.