Any young movie director seeking to make a mark in the underworld gravitates to certain conventions of the crime genre. Major bloodletting is a must. It doesn't hurt to stage a power struggle between an established mob boss and his overly ambitious protégé, preferably with undertones of Greek tragedy. There must be plenty of sharp suits, expensive cigars and racy women. It helps to include at least one scene of such inventive, unbridled violence that people are talking about it afterward in a tone that combines awe and revulsion. And if you can flavor the whole business with a little spiritual self-destruction, so much the better, especially if you hope to get the odd college professor to buy a ticket.
These are some of the elements that rookie director Paul McGuigan has assembled in Gangster No. 1, an entertaining, if familiar, recapitulation of gangster-movie tropes that also comes furnished with an array of fancy camera tricks, jump-cuts and flashbacks -- the cinematographer is Donnie Brasco'sPeter Sova -- and some stretches of monologue so abstract and internalized that they suggest James Joyce rather than James M. Cain. Sam Mendes's Road to Perdition may be the year's most intriguing art film as gangster flick, but McGuigan (who also directed The Reckoning) out-conceptualizes fellow Englishman Mendes without breaking a sweat.
Set in London, in both 1968 and 1999, Gangster is basically the portrait of a monster, a young thug (Paul Bettany, late of A Beautiful Mind) so ruthlessly single-minded -- so anti-human -- that he doesn't even warrant a name. The movie calls him, a bit pompously, "Young Gangster"; he then metastasizes into a middle-aged thug (veteran Malcolm McDowell) who's still so far off the emotional charts that he's known simply as "Gangster 55." Marinating in rage and devoid of conscience, the younger incarnation gets into the rackets because he's tough, but he succeeds because he's a psychopath. Amid the false glitter of Swinging London, he will betray anyone and anything to get ahead (note the hatchet tucked into his belt), so when it comes to selling out his slick, well-mannered boss and mentor, Freddie Mays, aka "The Butcher of Mayfair" (David Thewlis), the formerly awed student doesn't miss a beat. As Young Gangster looks on, Freddie and his girlfriend, Karen (Saffron Burrows), are caught in a gruesome ambush by a rival mobster called Lennie Taylor (Jamie Foreman). But that's only the prelude to the movie's gory set piece, in which our brutal protagonist strips down to his underwear and hacks Lennie to pieces with a set of carpenter's tools. Except for some blood splashing, this happens largely out of the camera's view, but you'll be amazed what moviemakers can do with sound effects.
This all happens in flashback. As the film opens, we meet McDowell's ravaged Gangster the Elder -- now the top guy in cocaine, gambling and girls -- at a boxing match in a nightclub, where he gets the news that Freddie Mays (who somehow survived the ambush) is getting out of jail after serving thirty years. We know a confrontation is surely in the works; we don't know what a strange form it will eventually take.
In the course of these 103 minutes -- some of them muddied by impenetrable Cockney diction -- McGuigan takes pains to deploy another old gangster-movie theme -- the notion that blind ambition hardens the heart. But we're not much tempted to compare Gangster with, say, Michael Corleone in his armchair at Lake Tahoe, his enemies all slain, his bitter solitude complete, or even with Tony Montana at the end of his rope in Miami, where his raging appetites have cost him all his discernment. In order to lose your soul you must have one to begin with, and there's no evidence in Gangster that the title character ever did. From start to finish, he's sheer evil, pure subhumanity. He, too, wants an Aston-Martin, ruby cufflinks and ultimate power. But he doesn't have the sense even to envy Freddie for his relationship with Karen. To Young Gangster, women are impediments unworthy even of trophy status.
His essential soullessness may be one of the dramatic weaknesses in Johnny Ferguson's screenplay (adapted from a play by Louis Mellis and David Scinto), but there are others. Like the lowlife mod hoods in The Krays or even Ben Kingsley's psychotic thug in Sexy Beast, the English tough guys we encounter here just don't seem all that threatening or dangerous. To many Americans, English movie gangsters come off as slightly overdressed dandies with a gift for posing -- not least because they all tend to be blustering loudmouths with comically bad tempers. Give us Yanks the New York Mafia every time, with the silent menace of its omerta, or the casual country brutality of a Dillinger: He never bothered to have his suits made in Bond Street.
Still, there are some satisfactions in Gangster No. 1, including another brilliantly conceived performance by McDowell, who calls up a few distant echoes of the ruthless hooligan he played so memorably in A Clockwork Orange, and a dedicated effort at sheer nastiness by young Bettany, who reminds us even more directly of that Clockwork character -- right down to the ice-blue gaze and the sneer. As for director McGuigan -- whose best-known work to date is a trilogy of short films called The Acid House, from a collection of stories by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh -- he has a real way with flash-forwards featuring lots of shattered-mirror imagery, stream-of-consciousness fantasy sequences and innovations like "painting" blood in great conceptual splotches over the moving images of boxers slugging it out in the ring. Murder may not be everyone's idea of an art concept, but when you're busy assembling crime-movie conventions, it can't hurt to do it with a little personal style.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.