Gangster Number 1

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When a film comes up aces in pretty much every department?acting, writing, photography, sound, production design, editing, costumes?and still seems average, you can't shake the feeling that the filmmakers and actors have, in some horribly convoluted way, wasted their efforts. That feeling is conjured by Gangster Number 1, a stylish, nasty, curiously opaque crime picture from first-time fiction filmmaker Paul McGuigan, who made his bones in documentaries.

Gangster Number 1 follows in the footprints of Taxi Driver, Natural Born Killers, Straw Dogs, Goodfellas and other meditations on violence and male rage?films that immerse you in anxiety and violence while doing everything possible to distance you from the main character. The most perfect example of this subgenre is Stanley Kubrick's version of A Clockwork Orange, which was so self-consciously art-directed and so heavily narrated (in novelist Anthony Burgess' made-up futurist patois) that it practically dared you to care about its thug hero. Gangster Number 1, which flashes back from the present day to 1968, uses some of the same distancing devices, and in much the same way. It has Clockwork Orange-style narration, thick with slang, some real-world and some invented. It has images of a homicidal hero staring directly into the lens, and occasionally addressing the audience directly. And in a casting coup so perfect it verges on obviousness, the fiftysomething version of the main character is played by Malcolm McDowell, the Humble Narrator of Orange.

The film's title comes from the gangster's name for himself, bestowed as a young man. In the flashbacks, when the character is played by thirtysomething Paul Bettany, he's known as Young Gangster; in the present-day scenes, McDowell steps into the role and the character is known as Gangster 55 (quite a fall from prominence, lad). If this vicious gangland climber has a real name, we never learn it, nor do we learn anything about his background or his beliefs (or lack thereof). He's a stone killer, pure and simple; he had a vision of ruling his boss' empire, then he set about killing every man who stood between him and the throne. He's a street hood version of Macbeth, but he's granted permission to kill not by a scheming wife, but by his own sick, extremely talkative subconscious. He's EveryGangster?a comic book projection (or self-projection), living out blood-fantasy scenarios that you've already seen in other gangster movies?the business satire, classy duds and convoluted plotting of the Godfather pictures; the Scorsese Goodfellas/Casino tone of savage violence-plus-black comedy.

In a sense, the title could be read as a faintly self-deprecating admission of just how common this material is. Quite a few upcoming filmmakers chose the crime thriller as their debut genre, perhaps because, along with film noir (a related genre), it gives cast and crew a chance to do Ringling Bros. backflips over a safety net of proven formula. The script, by Johnny Ferguson, was adapted from a London stage play by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, and despite the dark, sleek, mod-noir production design (by up-and-comer Richard Bridgeland) and makeup and hair (by veteran Jenny Shircore), it still feels a wee bit like a flamboyantly arty stage play?an extended monologue with illustrations.

Except for a few hints of working-class resentment when the gangsters discuss money, the film is curiously abstract; it doesn't give you a sense of what kind of young people were drawn to this lifestyle in the Flower Power 60s. The story lacks specifics of both plot and culture; it seems to be occurring in the same alternate universe as the Mel Gibson remake of Payback, where grown men shoot each other left and right on big city streets and the cops always arrive too late to arrest anybody.

In the flashbacks (which occupy the bulk of the picture's running time), Gangster Number 1 holds your attention. It has smash-and-grab editing, some fine, sharp-edged dialogue and a pleasingly right-on look. The performances are sterling right down the line, from Bettany and McDowell, who share the same ice-dagger stare and switchblade posture, to David Thewlis, who plays the hero's decadently cool, much-plotted-against employer, Freddie Mays, and Jamie Foreman as rival ganglord Lennie Taylor, a heavily Brylcreemed middle-aged cowboy (he has some of Joe Pesci's shlumpy fireplug defensiveness).

Yet the result of all this talent is a movie that's original in all the ways that don't matter, and unoriginal in all the ways that do. Coppola gave crime moviemakers a new model 30 years ago?burnished, operatic, savage; Scorsese provided a new model 12 years ago in Goodfellas by applying a satirist's eye to a documentarian's details. The Sopranos builds on (and in some ways improves upon) Goodfellas by granting nearly equal dramatic importance to its female characters; it insists its male characters dwell in a gory, macho fantasyland partly because they can't control, escape or even understand the opposite sex.

Gangster Number 1 doesn't have a single idea anywhere near as interesting?just a succession of super-nasty setpieces that seem rather obviously designed to take their place in the Brutality Hall of Fame, alongside the shower sequence in Psycho, the cop-torture sequence in Reservoir Dogs and the rape sequence in A Clockwork Orange, which begins with McDowell's droog antihero savagely thrashing a homeowner while crooning "Singing in the Rain." (Gangster pays homage to the latter in a murder sequence that kicks off with the hero cranking the volume on the stereo; it's almost as if he's seen so many movies that he can't kill without a soundtrack.) The camera represents the point of view of the man being murdered, and the sequence seems to go on for days. Here, as elsewhere, violence is grotesque and cleverly staged, but it ultimately seems cynical and unfeeling?like a calculated attempt to impress.

McGuigan's time would have been better spent untangling the central love triangle between Young Gangster, his boss Freddie and Freddie's girlfriend, a sultry singer named Karen (Saffron Burrows, appealing despite having no real character to play). The film suggests our hero is fuming over the fact that a girl stole his boss away, instead of the other way around; we've seen that before, but it's still funny. Yet this promising trope is treated glancingly, either because the filmmakers weren't quite sure how far to go with it, or because they were too busy fussing over style issues and giving the actors notes on how to seem dangerous without overdoing it. (McDowell didn't get the memo; he cackles, struts and glowers like a teenager pretending to be Tony Montana. The man is an icon of sorts, and deservedly so, but here he overdoes the volcanic "intensity." As a result, his present-day scenes don't quite match up with Bettany's icefishing cool?a major problem when you've got two actors playing the same guy opposite a supporting cast that's aged with special makeup.) Like so many gangster and crime pictures made since Goodfellas, Gangster Number 1 is a very professional effort that amounts to less than the sum of parts. It's a calling card with blood on it.

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