Another of the "new wave" of ultra-stylish British crime movies to come out lately, Gangster No. 1 is doubtless the bloodiest and most hallucinatory of the bunch. Learning that his old crime boss (David Thewlis) has just been released from jail after 30 years, gangland kingpin Malcolm McDowell looks back on his relationship with the well-dressed mentor he grew to idolize, then fetishize, then envy, then hate. The bulk of the film takes place in 1968, when the young gangster (never named, but played by Paul Bettany, best known now for his role as Russell Crowe's "roommate" in A Beautiful Mind) is recruited by Thewlis, finds a taste for killing, and plots endless revenge on his boss simply because he cannot have what the other seems to take for granted. It becomes pretty clear early on that this young gangster is a psychopath, and there are plenty of gut-wrenchingly violent scenes to prove the point.
But what is the point of Gangster No. 1 itself? Is it a send-up of the genre; a look at the emptiness of gangland ambition? Is it a character study? Or is it just an exercise in style? All three, perhaps, but it still delivers all the way up until the third act, which takes place in the present day, with McDowell getting his chance to chew the scenery ferociously as the bitter aged gangster (though it was a bad idea to have two actors play one character at different ages, while all the other performers make do with "age makeup" for the contemporary scenes). At this point the film starts to bog down, losing the energy and spot-on perfect atmosphere of late '60s London. Perhaps that's intentional, but I preferred the slim, tailored suits, the dolly birds in their mini skirts, and that cool, cool soundtrack. Gangster No. 1 is an imperfect film, but it has a lot of great moments and fine performances by Bettany and Thewlis, two of the most interesting British actors working today.