At the center of Paul McGuigan’s remorselessly violent and gruesomely funny “Gangster No. 1” is a character who only understands his existence as it pertains to his idol, a ruthless London gangster named Freddie Mayes.
Freddie is suave, handsome, dangerous and respected by his legions of organized-crime hoodlums. He has earned the right to be called Gangster No. 1, to the extent that extortion and murder can be considered methods of “earning” anything. And our narrator, whose name we never learn, is insanely jealous, hating Freddie’s success almost as much as he loves Freddie.
It is told mostly in flashback, starting in 1968 with the narrator played by Paul Bettany (he is Malcolm McDowell in later scenes; Freddie is David Thewlis throughout). He’s the new man in Freddie’s crew and quickly earns the big guy’s trust by demonstrating he can be as cold and ruthless as the situation calls for. He does this by dropping a taxi on a debtor whose account is in arrears. (And you thought your credit card’s late fee was tough.)
There is trouble in the form of a woman (there’s always a woman, isn’t there?), a smoky nightclub waitress named Karen (Saffron Burrows). The narrator, good-looking but charmless when it comes to the fairer sex, has more fuel for his anti-Freddie fire.
I won’t reveal more except to say that the narrator rises to the top, leaving a thick trail of blood behind him. Also, as indicated by the opening scenes set in 1999, he is alarmed to learn Freddie is about to be released from prison. The bulk of the film leads up to why, exactly, Freddie got put there in the first place.
Paul Bettany shot this film before “A Knight’s Tale” and “A Beautiful Mind,” but it’s being released at a good time. American audiences are familiar with him, like him, and are ready to see him tackle something difficult. (His lightweight work in “Knight” and “Beautiful” would have seemed like quite a step backward if we’d already seen “Gangster.”) His performance here is powerful and highly charged, marked by stretches of insanity, greed and torment, often all at once. He’s a flurry of emotions and motivations, yet keenly relatable to anyone who has ever felt a tinge of jealousy or hero worship.
David Thewlis is also extremely capable as Freddie, though the bad old-age makeup applied to him in the final act does him no great service. (Apparently, prison life is not as hard as you’ve heard, because Freddie has hardly aged at all in 30 years, while the narrator has turned into the 59-year-old Malcolm McDowell.) McDowell, alas, is rather over-the-top as the older version of the narrator. I wish Bettany had played the film’s final scenes, too, because his manic energy would have done the part justice.
There are more than a few similarities to “Fight Club,” both in theme and content. Whether that’s a selling point or not depends on your tolerance for violence and your interest in an introspective look at an insecure gangster.
B+ (1 hr., 41 min.; )