Gangster No. 1

dir. McGuigan

Opens Fri Sept 27

Hollywood Theater

Malcolm McDowell has packed on some weight and lost a significant mass of hair since A Clockwork Orange. Rather than ignoring the fact that his button-nosed sneer will forever be associated with that film, Gangster No. 1 capitalizes on it. McDowell plays a criminal big shot; a violent, ambitious gangster. Actually, the film's bulk takes place in memories of the late '60s London crime underworld, with Paul Bettany playing the younger version of McDowell's unnamed character. Bettany does his best Clockwork glower--a petulant, hollow stare. Not half bad, actually, and pretty hot.

Director Paul McGuigan does some fancy footwork with the camera, catching any number of interesting shots. By far the most impressive example is a horrifying scene filmed from the perspective of a man being slowly tortured and hacked to death. It's pretty cool.

The whole film is cool. Gangsters are cool, A Clockwork Orange is cool, it's all cool. It's also terribly silly at times. Bettany's character is inexplicably smitten with the gangster lifestyle, and the film's first half features a lot of running around in nice suits, being ridiculously and unbelievably mean. No doubt, they all have dicks hanging down to their knees and everything, but it just seems purposeless. Then, as the film progresses, it becomes atrocious. The star gangster is increasingly revealed as inherently evil, pitiless.

Because there is no background to his character, and no explicit motive for his ruthless ambition--other than the fact that he gets moony-eyed over things like ruby cuff links--it's a tad fantastic. Still it is fun to watch, in a purely escapist sense. Because the McDowell/Bettany character is so amusingly extreme, it's hard not to snort at some of the film's more intense moments. It's entertaining, but juvenile.

The best way to approach this film is as though you're going to play dress-up. Walk into the theater reminding yourself how cool violence and gangsters and snazzy clothes and sons of bitches are, and you'll do just fine. Search for realism, humanity, reason, or A Clockwork Orange and you may shed tears of disappointment.