In a film that’s an interesting hybrid of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Goodfellas”, we’re first given a glimpse into an aged and weathered mobster played by the immortal Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) who gives the audience his origin of his rise to power. Played by Paul Bettany, he is a young McDowell who is recruited by the top gangster in the neighborhood Freddie Mays (David Thewlis) and takes on a job as one of his henchmen instantly adapting to his line of work. The young gangster is violent, determined and soon begins to eye Mays’ job despite the fact that Mays takes a special liking to him and takes him under his wing.
The role for Bettany as the young gangster is purposely silent and though he has very few lines in the film he manages to steal the show from the often charming and electric McDowell. There are scenes that rely simply on his facial expressions, a theme that runs throughout the movie as he purposely challenges other mafia bosses henchmen with searing firy looks. Bettany manages to bring this story to life with his great firy eyes as McDowell narrates expressing his thought process at the time. It’s almost as if the young gangster wants to start a war to prove himself and he manages to, once he begins becoming a loose cannon and handling rival gangsters. The film eagerly misses something a lot of the great mafia films have had: A. It fails to bring about a true story structure, and B. It fails to have any truly memorable cast of characters.
The film, set at a nearly two hour mark fails to give a truly engrossing story for the audience to be sucked into. “Reservoir Dogs” and “Goodfellas”, two favorites (of mine) and utter masterpieces that came to mind while watching this, but I had to compare. “Goodfellas” had structure and chronicled a young man’s rise into power in the mafia and how it corrupted him, it had a charismatic young lead and incredible supporting characters we loved to hate while “Reservoir Dogs” has sheer charisma and leapt off the screen grabbing the audience by their throats and never let go while presenting a mélange of characters that we loved and hated. “Gangster No. 1” as hip and stylish as it attempts to be fails in every aspect, shape, way and form with a disappointing story pulled from a talented cast.
Paul Bettany is an excellent actor and manage to present excellent chemistry alongside his acting equal Russell Crowe in both movie but is rarely ever given a line the first half of the film. I’m not sure of the writer or director attempted to present the nameless young gangster as a symbol to mob violence, but somewhere across the blurry line story and characters, the translation is lost. Most of the film derives its atmosphere on the odd and unusual and some of it works but there are others that I can’t figure out. What was Bettany’s characters fixation on the eyes and why did he take such joy in murdering other people? While it’s obvious to say that he was just insane, we never get a glimpse into his life.
Then when he does manage to rise to power as head honcho, the story fast-forwards into his life as a middle aged man, enter Malcolm McDowell, but it would have been very interesting to see this psychotic man’s trip into madness and his insane rise to the top, but alas, we’re robbed of such an interesting notion and we immediately fast forward to McDowell. If the story isn’t broad enough, we’re given annoying and often tedious narration from McDowell who describes every little movement from his character which attempts to be a lot like a “Pulp Fiction”-esque style but inevitably becomes annoying and grating on the audience. Ultimately, the climax is reduced to philosophical and existential dribble that seems incredibly out of place among the short story. Despite some really good performances especially from Bettany, this is a pretty terrible movie with a short story, derivative story elements, and plot holes galore.