Another entry in the "new wave" of ultra-stylish British crime movies of recent years, Gangster No. 1 is doubtlessly 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) is recruited by Thewlis, finds a taste for killing, and soon dreams of destroying 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, skewering the emptiness of gangland ambition? Is it a character study? Or is it primarily 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 (it's a strange idea to have two actors play the same character at different ages, while all the other performers make do with old age makeup). 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 miniskirts, 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.