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Gangster No. 1

reviewed by Dave heaton

To be number one is a longing no doubt present throughout time, one that shows up in the world of politics, business, sports and just about everywhere else, really. Gangster No. 1, directed with flair by Paul McGuigan (The Acid House), examines that desire for power in the crime world, through the tale of a man so consumed by the idea of being No. 1 that he'll do anything to get there. What distinguishes this film from a thousand tales of gangsters rising up in the underworld is how thoroughly it dissects the power relations behind the world, showing both the appeal and glamour of power and how the lust for it can turn you into an empty shell of a human being. The film tells the story in a way that makes it more universal, like an examination of power relations in general, not just an exercise in continuing the "gangster film" tradition.

Told mostly through flashbacks, the film is bookended by present-day scenes of the grown-up gangster, played by Malcolm McDowell, being forced to come to terms with his past actions and, therefore, with the person he has become. The bulk of the film tells the story of his rise through the ranks, in particular of his going to work for flashy crime boss Freddie Mays (played throughout the film by David Thewlis) and secretly gunning to take over Mays' role as head. In this section of the film, Paul Bettany plays the lead character as a young man, giving a stunning performance. He uses his eyes as a weapon of power, exuding a canny calm while scaring others almost literally to death. Bettany at times looks eerily similar to McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, a fact which not only makes us believe they're the same person but lends an extra layer of meaning for cineastes.

The first half of Gangster No. 1 is standard crime-film storytelling, yet delivered with panache, with bright colors and a camera which veers about in an adventurous way. As the story unfolds, the film gets darker and more brutal, including one of the most terrifying murder sequences ever.

It'd have been easy to turn Gangster No. 1 into another by-the-books gangster film. That doesn't happen. The strengths of its performances, the personality of the camera, the almost detached way in which the story is told, where characters are not quickly identified as heroes or villains, and, above all, the risks that the story takes by deeply critiquing the very society that the film's entertainment value is based on make Gangster No. 1 a rich, rewarding film.

Note: This film was originally released in the U.K. in 2000, yet was just released in the U.S. in June.

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