Although unavoidably lumped in with the late '90s/early '00s embarrassment of British gangster films that followed on the heels of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Gangster No.1 stands up much better than some of the similar guns-and-geezers dross of the era thanks to some tremendous performances and a visual style that verges on the audacious, without ever quite slipping into ostentation.
Directed by Paul McGuigan, who went on to helm the entertaining (if stupidly titled) Lucky Number Slevin, GN1 features a typically brilliant scenery chewing performance from Malcolm McDowell as an ageing East End mob boss (credited only as Gangster 55), who narrates in flashback his conniving and vicious climb to the top of the criminal world.
In 1960s London, with McDowell’s character depicted by the younger Bettany, 55 is recruited to work as a heavy by big time crook Freddie Mays (Thewlis). As he becomes more deeply entrenched in May’s modish lifestyle, 55 develops a reputation as a reliable hand for dishing out any required violence, and when events conspire to drive a rift between Mays and his protegé, the latter uses his trusted status to play his own gang off against his boss’s underworld rivals in an effort to take “gangster number one” status for himself.
Bettany delivers a great performance that's rounded enough to avoid seemingly like he's merely impersonating McDowell - undoubtedly wise given how iconic some of the young McDowell's roles were. McGuigan navigates the twisty, claret-drenched plot with panache, throwing in the occasional surreal touch that could have been embarrassing handled by a less gifted director, and a few set pieces stick in the mind long after the credits role.
However, Gangster No.1 is unfortunately a number of great elements that only add up to an OK film. Bettany/McDowell's protagonist is far from sympathetic, and there's very little heart to the story - with no-one to root for, one is mostly just left to observe Gangster 55’s machinations in much the way one might observe a bad-tempered glass-blower at work. It’s technically impressive, reasonably engaging, but not necessarily something you'll be dying to revisit again and again.