[box cover]

Gangster No. 1

Malcolm McDowell plays an aging Brit goodfella ("Gangster 55") who's living the good life when he hears that his old mentor is getting out of the slammer. So it's flashback time to swingin' London, circa 1968, where we see the same bad boy (played by Paul Bettany) scheming and slashing his way to the top, so we can understand just why 55 is so shaken by his ex-boss's imminent return. See, starting out as a gunsel for slick, fashion-conscious mobster Freddie Mays (David Thewlis), 55 knocked off his rival underlings, then manipulated his boss into a confrontation with another skeezy local mobster. Our boy shot to the No. 1 position after murdering the rival boss in a phenomenally brutal fashion and watching Freddie take the fall for the crime. Thirty years later, we're back to 55, now older but still crazy, as he's forced to confront his paranoia, demons, and conscience upon Freddie's release from the big house. The story of Gangster No. 1 (2000) is classic to the point of being paint-by-numbers predictable — power-hungry fellow has Freudian love/hate fixation with mentor, experiences unanalyzed rage when a woman enters the picture, and destroys mentor/love object so that he can take the guy's place — and the plot takes awhile to really kick into gear. Additionally, director Paul McGuigan (along with writer Johnny Ferguson) owes such a debt to Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino that he should have just added their names to the credits. But despite all that, the film is so sharply directed and the performances so very, very good — and the escalating scenes of violence so disquieting in their brutality — that you can't tear your eyes away, even if McDowell's scenery-chewing, "top o' the world, ma!" final scenes are a tad outlandish. The DVD release by MGM Home Entertainment of the IFC Films production offers a bright, colorful and clean transfer in either anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) or standard, pan-and-scan versions. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very good — a couple of scenes feature very loud music with dialogue and foley sounds, and everything comes through clear as a bell. A director's commentary is on board; McGuigan has a fairly thick Scottish accent, so occasionally it may be a bit difficult to understand what he's saying (unless you're Scottish, of course). He also seems a bit disingenuous in his dogged insistence that he worked so very, very hard to make a truly unique gangster picture, especially when his influences are so obvious and so pronounced. The commentary is, nonetheless, interesting. A "making-of" featurette offers short interview snippets with McGuigan, McDowell, and Bettany, and one deleted scene is offered, with McDowell practicing what he's going to say when he meets with Freddie Mays. Also here: the theatrical trailer and TV spot. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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