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With: Paul Bettany, Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis, Saffron Burrows
Written by: Johnny Ferguson
Directed by: Paul McGuigan
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence, pervasive language, and brief drug use and nudity
Running Time: 103
Date: 06/09/2000

Gangster No. 1 (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Their 'Number' Is Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Let's first establish just how popular Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are in England. Take their popularity here in the United States and triple it. Imagine a theater playing Reservoir Dogs for more than a year straight. Imagine polls in which Pulp Fiction is voted the greatest movie ever made, beating Citizen Kane and Raging Bull.

Then look at the success of Guy Ritchie's films Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, which are the most clever and interesting of the Tarantino-inspired works. While Americans have grown suspicious of Tarantino and his strange absence from movie screens (he's directed one movie in the last eight years), the British continue to be fascinated with subversive crime stories.

Now we have Gangster No. 1, which opens today at the Lumiere. It's the second feature by director Paul McGuigan, who made the nifty little cult film The Acid House (1998). Here, he takes a cue from Tarantino's deft use of non-information in storytelling and his canny use of physical space.

The film begins in the present, when Gangster 55 (who's known only by that name), played by Malcolm McDowell, learns that Freddie Mays (David Thewlis) has been released from prison after three decades.

Flash back to the 1960s when the young Gangster (Paul Bettany) first works for Freddie, and begins to long for the power and glory that Freddie wields. They even butt heads over the love of the same girl, Karen (Saffron Burrows), who stays by Freddie's side though thick and thin.

Most of the movie unfolds during the past, though, with McDowell narrating. Young Gangster tries everything in his power to swindle Freddie, but on the surface, he tries to remain on his good side.

Then we flash forward to the present, when the older Freddie meets up with older Gangster for an intense showdown.

The movie has a few brilliant touches, the foremost being Freddie's groovy 1960s pad with a sunken living room, a huge circular couch, and funky interior decorating. When Freddie goes down, Gangster inherits the place and leaves it the same throughout the decades, like a frozen fa´┐Żade of former goodfella glory.

The main trouble is with the casting -- though there's no question that McDowell, Bettany and Thewlis are brilliant. It's that two different actors play Gangster at different ages, and Thewlis plays the same character aged with makeup. This odd dynamic constantly shocks you out of the movie.

Yet it's fascinating to see how Bettany and McDowell play off each other. Bettany hardens and shines his eyes to match McDowell's fierce gaze, and they walk with the same arrogant swagger.

At the same time, Thewlis (who gave one of the great performances of the last decade in Mike Leigh's Naked) turns his power inward, showing a slightly hangdog expression on the outside, but never betraying anything to anyone.

Though the movie is interesting, it's missing the vitality of Tarantino's, and even Richie's, films. Centering on anger and viciousness, it lacks enthusiasm. It's worth seeing, but won't hold up to repeated viewings.

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