Sitting round at a boxing match, chomping on cigars and knocking back champagne Gangster (Malcolm McDowell) hears that Freddie Mays (David Thewlis) is getting out of prison and it knocks him back as he starts to remember. As a young man in 1968 Gangster (Paul Bettany) is introduced to Mays who is impressed by his ability to get jobs done in the most direct and often violent of ways. But Gangster attracted to the high life of Mays starts wanting it for himself and when he learns that rival gangster, Lennie Taylor (Jamie Foreman), plans to have Mays killed he plans to let him and then kill Lennie forcing his way to the top of the criminal underworld. But Mays and his girlfriend Karen (Saffron Burrows) didn't die, instead getting sent down for 30 years. And now after 30 years Gangster is going to have to face the man he betrayed.
Let me tell you the problems which "Gangster No. 1" has and it has more than one. Firstly the tale of a young man who rises up the ranks to be the top gangster is one which is familiar and whilst you can dress it up, change the era, change the costumes the basic storyline will always be familiar and so right off "Gangster No. 1" has that issue. But it has another more significant issue as the focus of the movie is Gangster and his rise to the top as a violent gangster but we know nothing about him, as in what drives him on to be a violent maniac who wants to be Freddie Mays, the stylish boss who intimidates people. Without that character depth it makes the familiar basic storyline all the more familiar and even shallow.
But then there are things which are very right with "Gangster No. 1" and they start with the clever casting of Bettany as the younger McDowell as it feels like Bettany studied McDowell's earlier movies and learned his mannerisms. In fact at times it is almost unsettling how much Bettany reminds you of a young McDowell and with this being set in the 60s almost feels like we have been transported back in time. That is another of the movies plus points as it gets the look right.
Of course there is the side to "Gangster No. 1" which makes it notorious and it is excessively violent and certainly doesn't hold back when it comes to being verbally offensive. Yes this is definitely not the sort of movie you want to watch with either young children are around or parents who will be shocked by someone being smashed to death with putters on a crazy golf course. That probably sounds amusing in a dark comedy sort of way but trust me there is no comedy in "Gangster No. 1" just a lot of violence.
Aside from the sublime casting of Bettany and McDowell the rest of the cast are just as good with Jamie Foreman well cast as rival gangster Lennie with an almost unrecognizable Andrew Lincoln as his right hand man Maxie. In fact all the performances are good with Thewlis coming across as quite loathsome as Freddie Mays but it is Bettany and McDowell who make the movie.
What this all boils down to is that "Gangster No. 1" is certainly an entertaining movie if you are fond of British gangster movies and are not easily offended by excessive swearing and graphic violence. But it sadly suffers from not only being familiar but lacking character depth.