An attention-grabbing screen bow by Paul Bettany and David Thewlis’ best perf in ages, are the principal reasons for watching Brit crimer “Gangster No. 1,” though it’s hard to see mainstream Anglophone auds embracing this unlovable pic in great numbers. Often nastily violent, and defiantly foul-mouthed in a realistic but dramatically unnecessary way, this portrait of a ruthless young hood in ’60s London has several fine qualities but dilutes them with disorganized direction.
First regular feature by director Paul McGuigan has many of the same trademarks as his portmanteau pic, “The Acid House Trilogy” (1998) — a real feel for character, moments of flashy visual effects and an abiding fascination with the down-and-dirty. The world of “Gangster” is in some ways removed from that of writer Irvine Welsh’s in “Acid House,” but it’s equally nauseous: Instead of hyped-up, marginalized Scots, we get psychotic, marginalized Cockneys, with whom it’s equally difficult to feel much empathy, at least as presented here.
Impressive opening, set in the present day, sets a tone of gross comedy underlined with incipient violence that the movie manages to sustain only for the first few reels. To the mellifluous strains of Sacha Distel classic “The Good Life,” an unnamed top gangster (Malcolm McDowell) — identified as “Gangster 55” in the credits — is shown celebrating in vulgar style with his colleagues at a boxing-match dinner.
His euphoria is rapidly cut short when he learns by chance that an old colleague, Freddie Mays (Thewlis), is just out after a 30-year stretch in stir. Pic then flashes back three decades, to 1968, with 55’s voiceover regularly commenting on the action.
A poolroom layabout, the young 55 (Bettany) first meets Freddie (Thewlis) when summoned to his ’60s-elegant high-rise pad. Enamored of Freddie’s rep as the Butcher of Mayfair, and of his tailoring (Jermyn Street suits, Italian leather shoes), 55 is hired on the spot to replace a sidekick Freddie sadistically fires. In short order, 55 wins his spurs by dealing with Freddie’s enemies, notably the goons in a rival gang led by the equally disturbed Lennie Taylor (Jamie Foreman), who torches Freddie’s club one night.
Helped by understated production design and costuming, which avoids the period’s more flamboyant visual cliches, pic’s first act exactly captures the feel of the age and the working-class loutishness behind the facade of the Swinging ’60s. Neat and elegant, and brimming with scarcely suppressed psychosis, Thewlis is terrific as Freddie, shadowed at every step by Bettany’s cool wannabe, quietly clocking up experience and grudges.
The fault lines in the pair’s relationship appear when Freddie takes a fancy to a beautiful, no-nonsense dancer, Karen (Saffron Burrows), who tips over 55’s misogyny into crazed ambition. Learning that Lennie intends to ambush Freddie and Karen one night, 55 pits the gangs against each other so he can emerge as Gangster No. 1.
Convincingly playing a young McDowell (especially in the eyes), Bettany pitches his perf as a kind of Cockney mix of McDowell’s Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” and Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” His character’s bloody dispatching of Lennie (shown from the p.o.v. of the victim) has the same danse macabre quality as the other two films, the sense of exorcising repressed demons, though without the ritualistic choreography. Relatively little violence is shown onscreen, but Bettany’s ice-cold perf renders it all the more gruesome.
This, however, becomes the movie’s Achilles’ heel. Where Thewlis’ Freddie is a character of many facets and moods, Bettany’s is one-note, making it difficult to get under the skin of 55’s ambition. It’s more the fault of Johnny Ferguson’s script (adapted from a play staged at London’s Almeida Theater) than of Bettany’s perf, but it is a crucial flaw — and diminishes many of the other good performances (Burrows, Foreman, Kenneth Cranham’s vet gangster) circling round it.
Things aren’t helped, either, by McGuigan’s oscillating direction, which focuses on set pieces at the expense of dramatic line and cannot make up its mind whether to go for a visually jazzy style or a realistic, character-based one. Result: a movie that lacks both the high-style, gallery-pleasing appeal of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and the skin-crawling drama of Brit crime classics like “The Long Good Friday,” “Get Carter” and “Villain.” As the playful quality of the opening recedes, “Gangster” simply becomes more gratuitously nasty and expletive-filled.
In his first major role in a British pic in some time, McDowell has a commanding presence in the movie’s bookends. Unfortunately, his big final scene — virtually a monologue — is again undercut by the script, which gives Thewlis little to do and robs the pic of an emotionally satisfying confrontation.
Tech credits are generally good, mixing London exteriors with interiors shot at Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios. John Dankworth’s score adds considerable atmosphere, and Peter Sova’s lensing is darkly resonant. Running time is about five to 10 minutes too long.