Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:08 pm 
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Brit gangsters lose their cool

One thing the English are fond of is menace. One can see that from the plays of Harold Pinter and from their gangster movies. American movie gangsters are as violent, indeed more so, but spend more time on gathering and challenging power and efficiently rubbing out their enemies than on just scaring other people. English crime pictures more typically lead up to some moment when we wince as the baddest guy moves forward to do something particularly unmentionable to his latest victim, and 'Gangster No. 1' has many of these, as well as an actor who excels at filling these moments with all the juice they can hold: Paul Bettany. Bettany at 31 has nineteen film roles under his belt; he's best remembered as Chaucer in 'A Knight's Tale' and John Nash's Brit roommate in 'Beautiful Mind.' With hard blond features and a scary smile, Bettany rules as the evil psychopath, Gangster 55, who usurps the power of his boss, Freddie May (David Thewlis), through a grueling murder double-cross that gets Mays sent to prison for thirty years. One isn't likely to forget this brutal scene, one of several in which Bettany's character hacks up a victim, stripped to his underwear so as not to muss up his Italian suit and handmade shoes. This time we see most of it from the victim's viewpoint as he repeatedly loses consciousness and wakes up to see Gangster 55 coming at him with renewed relish, and finally exhaustion. Again, menace is all, but here it has descended into gore. But make no mistake about it: Bettany is good. He has a way of glowering at the camera that makes him look like a very mean panther.

Thewlis is also good. As usual, he plays his character a bit soft and low keyed, but that makes his shouting putdowns of underlings all the more effective. He's very well fed and elegant. It's hard to see the weasel-like, scrawny Thewlis of 'Naked' and 'Total Eclipse' in this posh ruling London punk. Thewlis and Bettany balance each other nicely. Malcolm McDowell, as the older Gangster 55 whose scenes bookend the movie, is less good. It's impossible to imagine this prancing, gnarly little meanie as the princely young mobster Bettany represents, and while Bettany is cold and scary, McDowell is mainly just shrill. The casting seems completely out of tune when McDowell is having his final (but unsatisfying) showdown with the mature Freddie, played still by Thewlis and looking very little different from the young Freddie except for silver hair and a bit of a paunch. That this final scene occurs in the sunken living room of Freddie's original pad, kept unchanged by No. 55, makes it seem like the filmmakers ran short of sets as well as older actors.

The atmosphere is nicely handled, when it's allowed to show. Street scenes, interiors, and shots of Freddie's nightclub convey a sense of 'Sixties London without overemphasizing the clichés.

As the title itself hints, this movie represents a crude, generic conception of what gangsters are like and despite good acting the writing provides no subtlety of plot or character. Bettany does the most anyone could with a role that never goes beyond that of an opaque, violent, sadistic psychopath. There's no development, no payoff, no intricacy of plot. Because of Bettany's excellent turn and Thewlis' suave backup, not to mention all the blood, which rivals any straightforward horror movie, 'Gangster No. 1' isn't completely forgettable. It's much more horrific than Guy Ritchie's cloyingly playful 'Lock, Stock, and Two Loaded Barrels' and 'Snatch,' but at least they were fun. This isn't. It's disappointing to see the English gangster genre steadily drifting downhill since 'The Long Good Friday' and 'Mona Lisa.' Michael Caine, incidentally, has more scary cruelty in his little finger in 'Mona Lisa' than Bettany hacking bloody with an ax. Is this the bad influence of Quentin Tarentino? It's said they love 'Reservoir Dogs' in Britain. They got the ear-chopping scene fine, but they seem to have missed the interesting dialogue and the plot reversals. There's a nice turn by Saffron Burrows, as Freddie's girlfriend, Karen (though she, like Thewlis, has aged too little in the final scenes). Minor characters are very little developed. The story's weak and over-simple, character development is flaccid, and the flash-cuts are a poor substitute for good action editing. Dialogue, when one can understand it, is not exactly profound. Actually, as in Ritchie's gangster flicks, you all too often can't understand a word that's being said. I wish I'd gone to a French movie. That at least would have had subtitles, and the French haven't succumbed to Quentin's influence. I wish Paul Bettany had had a chance to wear those nice suits and prance around in a better movie.

July 28, 2002

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