"Gangster No. 1" features one of Malcolm McDowell's worst-ever performances, one of up-and-coming actor Paul Bettany's best-ever performances in a film divided into past and present sections that are ridiculously disparate.
To be frank, this violent gangster drama probably could have been salvaged simply by ditching its modern-day section especially the final third, which serves as a showcase for over-the-top, bug-eyed ranting by McDowell.
By comparison, Bettany, who co-stars as the younger version of McDowell's character, is menacing but subtle in a performance that recalls McDowell's electrifying, star-making turn in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 adaptation of "A Clockwork Orange." (If we're going to be completely honest here, Bettany actually "does" McDowell in the movie better than the veteran English character actor does himself.)
McDowell stars as the title character, an unnamed, fictional hood who rises to prominence in London's underworld during the late '60s, and who becomes a crime lord in the years that follow. In an extremely extended flashback (lasting nearly an hour), we see how a petty crook (Bettany) becomes the right-hand man for Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), the so-called "Butcher of Mayfair."
As it turns out, he's very good at his job, as he helps Freddie solidify his small but lucrative empire. But it appears that he may be carrying his devotion to Freddie a little too far as demonstrated by his apparent jealously of his boss' romance with a club girl (Saffron Burrows).
The film is extremely R-rated. Director Paul McGuigan rarely spares viewers the sight of graphic killings and mutilation. Yet his kinetic, visually inventive style makes the early portions of the film quite watchable, and the turmoil between Bettany, Thewlis and Burrows' characters is believable.
Unfortunately, a clunky voice-over by McDowell tramples all over Bettany's performance, and the vet's over-emoting throughout the course of the film's finale is hilariously bad.
"Gangster No. 1" is rated R for graphic scenes of gangland violence (stabbings, beatings, shootings and butchering); use of strong sex-related profanity, crude sexual slang terms and racial epithets; graphic gore, brief drug use (cocaine) and brief full male nudity. Running time: 103 minutes.