This film was released in the year 2000. I was expecting another gangster flick trying to cash in on the success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels but I was surprised. This film is a dark, stylish portrayal of one mans descent into madness as he sets his sights on being the top boy.
The film takes place mostly in flashbacks which chart the rise of a small-time hood who fancies himself a bit. Predictably he is keen to impress the right people and move up in his chosen profession. He gradually becomes obsessed with the infamy he gains from performing violent acts and so becomes more and more evil. None of this seems to make him happy.
Gangster No. 1 is almost at pains to avoid romanticising the career which makes it harsh, bleak and generally unpleasant. Our lead character seems to realise eventually that he is the failure, that none of it matters and that ultimately he has wasted his life in a vain, obsessive quest for power.
The problem with this premise is that it has been done to death and although they have tried to put a new slant on it, it still doesn't work in places and often descends into cringe inducing heavy-duty violence. It does get credit for the attempt at a realistic portrayal of violent criminals, instead of the usual cheeky, loveable gangster characters you see from Hollywood or Guy Ritchie. However the realism makes for a very tense and unpleasant film with a tangible lack of humour to alleviate the tension.
The acting is a decent standard throughout and it is pleasing to see more British films being made, however do they all have to be about gangsters? Paul Bettany, whom I had not seen before, impressed as the young lead with Malcolm McDowell sleepwalking his part as the older version. The film also included an excellent David Thewliss as the psychopathic Freddie Mays and a not so excellent Saffron Burrows as trophy girlfriend. The film was directed by first-timer Paul McGuigan who was competent throughout and interesting in places.
The violence is graphic and quite sick at times. The mood of the film is very dark, complimented by the dream sequences and the fact it is completely devoid of any humour. The lack of any central plot other than Bettany/McDowell´s decline gave the film a rather hollow feeling; it failed to really satisfy. However if you are looking for a violent, realistic portrayal of a London gangster in the 60´s then this is a good choice but I warn you this is not a family film.